-  Friday 23 March 2018

A Nepali recipe for pessimism: Feuding politicians, an unpopular king and ex-militants

 -  Binaj Gurubacharya

Oct 06 2007 - At least there's no war. With 13,000 people dead during more than a decade of fighting, people here will tell you that's one good thing.

But nearly a year after Nepal's Maoist militants left their Himalayan bases to join the political mainstream, raising hopes that this country's government could finally become more than a regional sideshow, politics remains deadlocked by feuding parties and overshadowed by the former insurgents.

And in Nepal, a poverty-wracked country where most rural people struggle by in a semi-feudal existence, political pessimism has become the rule.

"I was naive enough to believe that things would change," said former Finance Minister Devendra Raj Pandey. "I thought the parties would change, and that the Maoists would come around to accepting this new political reality."

Instead, "They have all thoroughly disappointed the people in every sense of the word."

On Friday came one more disappointment, when, after days of arguing, the political parties and the Maoists agreed to postpone upcoming elections to select the Constituent Assembly, the body that will draft the new constitution and map out the country's political future.

Now, no one is sure when the elections, originally scheduled for Nov. 22, will be held. That decision will presumably require many more meetings in the prime minister's walled compound, where politicians disappear behind a rolling metal gate and carloads of young Maoists, dressed in gray polyester safari suits, wait grimly in the parking lot for their leaders.

Many observers predict it will be March, at the earliest, before ballots are cast.

It was the Maoists who pushed for the postponement, increasing the pressure on the ruling alliance after quitting the government last month.

Nothing should happen, they say, until their demands are met. The monarchy, they insist, should be immediately abolished — though the once-absolute ruler King Gyanendra retains little power since street protests forced him to bring back democracy last year. They are also demanding procedural changes to the election system for the Constituent Assembly technical modifications that appear aimed at ensuring the Maoists capture as many seats as possible.

In many ways, that should come as no surprise. Democracy is messy, particularly in a country with such meager democratic experience, and for the Maoists to engage in Himalayan gerrymandering could simply mean they understand how to play the game.

But to force such a major change in the process  particularly so early in the political transition  is what worries many people.

"We have been let down by the Maoists. We are compelled to make changes to the election only because of them," Peace and Reconstruction Minister Ram Chandra Poudel said after the postponement. "All the parties in the government were ready to face the elections."

To see the more mainstream politicians as the good guys, though, is too simple.

Nepal's political class which has grown in fits and starts since the late 1940s, with years of slowly expanding democratic power offset by years when politicians were thrown into prison by various kings is wildly unpopular here, viewed as inbred, paralyzed by bickering and highly corrupt.

"The people have no other choice with politicians," said Prateek Pradhan, the editor of the Kathmandu Post. "They can't go back to the monarchy, and can't surrender to the Maoists."

But, he added, the country will go nowhere unless the former insurgents remain in politics.

"We can't have elections without the Maoists, they wouldn't be credible," Pradhan said.

In fact, except among party activists, it's difficult to find Nepalis with good things to say about the country's leadership — whether it's the king, the prime minister or Prachanda, the Maoist leader who turned a small band of followers into a feared rebel army that controlled a large swath of western Nepal.

Royalists have become embittered since the June 2001 palace massacre when nine people, including then-King Birendra, were apparently gunned down by the crown prince, who also died. The king was replaced by his brother, King Gyanendra, a businessman with little common touch. His son, Crown Prince Paras, is known for little more than drunken nightclub brawls.

Among urbanites, there are constant complaints about power outages, gasoline lines and corrupt officials — and the politicians who have yet to solve such problems.

And in rural areas once ruled by the Maoists, most observers believe the ex-militants have little genuine popularity, and much of what they do have has been eroded by their continuing strong-arm tactics to raise money and bring in recruits.

That leaves few political heroes.

"When the Maoists declared peace last year there was hope that Nepal would be a peaceful and normal country," said Susil Bhandari, whose sells Coke and cookies in a Katmandu shop. "For a while it appeared there was light at the end of the tunnel, but now all I see is darkness."

"I am thinking of emigrating to some other country," he said.

Source : International Herald Tribune

Other articles by reporter Binaj Gurubacharya

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