Nepal's parliament sets fast-paced agenda

The outcome of Nepal's civil uprising in April has paved the way for Maoist rebels to enter a peace process that could end a decade-old armed insurgency that has claimed more than 13,000 lives.

On May 13, Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who is known by his nom de guerre, Prachanda ("The Fierce One"), announced that he would lead a Maoist team that will meet with the government, ending more than 30 years of elusiveness. The date for the dialogue is not yet set.

Prachandra's announcement came as the civilian government continued its efforts to propel the country quickly away from the 14-month authoritarian rule of King Gyanendra. Building on the April uprising that discredited violence as a means of political change, the government appears to be gaining credibility with a series of popular steps - including plans to rewrite the Constitution and strip the king of most powers - thus making it harder for the Maoists to dictate terms with the parties, analysts say.

"With their strong decisions, the alliance of seven democratic parties has managed to gain on two fronts," says Narayan Wagle, editor of Kantipur, Nepal's biggest national daily. "The restored parliament has taken people into confidence by showing it can make hard decisions. The new government has also given a message to Maoists that ... they will be dealing with a strong state authority rather than a weak, transition government."

At the recommendation of a high-level commission, the new government on May 12 arrested five senior ministers of the king, restricted the rest from leaving Kathmandu, and suspended chiefs of three security agencies: the regular police, the armed police, and the central intelligence department. The parties have also indicated their intent to end the king's control over the Army and to declare the parliament the supreme lawmaker, decisions expected this week.

The parliament has decided to hold elections for an assembly to draft a new constitution, and has fulfilled major conditions set by the rebels for participating in politics - reciprocating their cease-fire, lifting the Maoists' classification as a terrorist group, and asking Interpol to erase their names from an international watch list. Last week, two senior Maoist leaders were also released from a prison in Kathmandu.

With Nepalis seeking answers from the Maoists for deaths during the long conflict, the elusive rebel leader, who commands the total loyalty of his People's Liberation Army, will face tough choices: to enter elections for the special assembly to draft a constitution - which are likely to fetch the rebels only a minority - or go back to war with fighters who are one-tenth the size of the 150,000-strong state forces and are ill-equipped and weary.

The rebels are unlikely to make the second choice, says Mr. Wagle. "Election for an assembly to draft a new constitution is a common demand of the Maoists and the seven parties. While modalities of the elections would be bitterly argued over, the rebels will eventually have to uphold their promise of participating ... and entering a political process," he says.

In an understanding with the parties last November, the rebels agreed to respect rule of law, competitive politics, human rights, press freedom, and multiparty democracy once their demand for assembly elections was met.

The parties' bid to consolidate power began after April 24, when King Gyanendra restored a parliament he dissolved four years ago. The parties, which were in disarray for much of the 12 years of free rule after 1990, this time welcomed the announcement and worked to bring the uprising to a peaceful conclusion.

"Our demand was met. Therefore, as responsible political parties, we had to call off the protests," says Arjun Narsingh K. C, a leader of Nepali Congress, a major party.

Observers say that had the mob been allowed to uproot the monarchy, the rebels would have benefited from the ensuing political vacuum. But while the rebels at first appealed to Nepalis to continue with the uprising even after the king's announcement, they shifted quickly in favor of a cease-fire and talks after the country moved toward celebration.

Mr. K. C added that while the parties are working to create a congenial environment for dialogue with the rebels, they are unclear on how to ensure "inclusive democracy" and "restructuring the state," both buzzwords these days. "Political actors ... are like the proverbial blind men trying to define an elephant," he says.

The future course of politics will be shaped by how the parties accommodate Prachanda's demand to dissolve parliament and the government and allow a new interim government to decide on election procedures. The parties want to continue with a parliament that would safeguard democratic values against the rebels' radical agendas.

Khagendra Sangraula, a leading leftist commentator, said that this demand from Prachanda smells of "extremism." "By asking the parties to dissolve the parliament and the government even before modalities for the elections are decided, the Maoists are hoping to achieve, using their own terminology, a 'revolutionary leap.' What they are effectively saying is that they are not comfortable with a proper procedure."

Mr. Sangraula, who sees the parties' recent steps as positive if not sufficiently rapid, says the Maoist decision to send a low-level team to Kathmandu to build toward final peace talks with Prachanda, is evidence that the rebels are unsure that the parties can ensure their leaders' safety.

Despite complexities, the spirit in Nepal is optimistic.

"The country has entered an exciting phase. Everyone is optimistic," says Wagle. "But things are not going to be easy. A state with a literacy rate below 50 percent, a decade-old armed insurgency, and an ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse population is undergoing a total restructuring," he says.

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