Nepal's ex-guerrillas take on civilian rule

Former rebel leader Prachanda – or 'the fierce one' – now leads the assembly rewriting the Constitution.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    In charge: Nepal's longtime rebel leader Prachanda, or 'the fierce one,' was sworn in as prime minister Monday.
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In the past four months, Nepal has seen its longtime Maoist rebels come to power and its 240-year-old monarchy abolished.

But even bigger changes loom now that former rebel leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal – whose nom de guerre, Prachanda, means "the fierce one" – holds high civilian office, after being sworn in as prime minister Monday.

That means the man who led a violent, decade-long insurgency that killed some 13,000 people is now tasked with healing the country's deep divisions and strengthening the rule of law, not to mention addressing rising food and fuel prices and integrating its 20,000 guerrillas into the Army.

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Though the Maoists rightfully took power after winning the most seats in an April election, plenty of Nepalis worry about how the ex-rebels – who have no real track record of governance – will lead.

A call for change...

After their surprise election victory last April, the Maoists became the largest party in the 601-member special assembly that is tasked with writing a new Constitution within the next 18 months. They hold 220 seats.

The vote and the Constitution are part of a peace agreement signed in 2006 that ended Nepal's brutal conflict. The newly elected assembly also abolished the monarchy in May, as required in the deal, and Nepal was declared a republic.

The Maoists' success came not just from Maoist sympathizers, but also from Nepali youths who wanted a new political force in power after seeing former political parties not deliver results for decades, says Krishna Khanal, a political scientist at Nepal's biggest university, Tribhuvan University.

"The voters generally did not vote for their ideology, but for change," he says. "It became a fashion, a reaction to the nonperformance of other political parties."

... but how much?

Just how the Maoists will redirect the country's direction remains to be seen. Already, in the assembly, they have seen their leadership resisted. It took four months to muster the simple majority required to select a prime minister. Last month the assembly chose a president other than the candidate that the Maoists backed. The party was unable to announce a small cabinet as promised on Monday because potential allies were still negotiating, state officials reported.

Fears remain that the Maoists will not work to bolster rule of law but instead impose their ideology or consolidate power for themselves.

The Maoists, originally inspired by Peru's Shining Path, are guided by the principle of Prachanda Path, a Nepali derivative of Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism. Prachanda Path is an ideology of "tactical flexibility and strategic rigidity," according to Maoist military commander Biplav.

Prachanda has promised land reform for millions of poor farmers who make up the majority of the population, a proposal that has raised concerns among property owners. But the leader has also distanced himself from the language of Marx and Mao that used to pepper his rhetoric, and he accepts the idea of private investment.

How they might govern is another question. "The Maoists have a psychological complex that the Army and police are not in their favor," Mr. Khanal says. "There is a possibility, therefore, that the Maoists may try to concentrate power by effecting changes in the security leadership, but a total red takeover is not in the cards."

"If that was possible, the Maoists would never have participated in mainstream politics," Khanal continues. "But there is a possibility that the government can be authoritarian."

According to the 2006 peace agreement, the government is also supposed to integrate some 20,000 Maoist guerrillas into the Army. The militant group, known as the People's Liberation Army (PLA), is currently stationed in cantonments administered by the United Nations.

For now, the Maoist party has decided that the PLA will continue to serve as the core security contingent of Nepal's new prime minister, after which there will be the Army.

"The way Prachanda is advertising the national Army [as corrupt] indicates that he still banks on his [PLA]," says Yuvraj Ghimire, editor of Newsfront, a weekly.

The Maoists must also deal with global price inflation that has hit Nepal. Food prices have risen 30 percent in the past six months, according to the World Food Program in Nepal. A rise in fuel prices has sparked sporadic protests. Security has deteriorated in rural areas. The Maoists must also address the grievances of those whose family members died during the decade-long conflict.

Wire material was used for this report.

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