Nepal grapples with next steps

Parliament resolved to hold elections for those who will draft a constitution.

By handing over executive power to Nepal's seven democratic parties and accepting their road map for building peace with Maoist rebels, King Gyanendra placed the future of Nepal's 238-year-old monarchy - as well as responsibility for the country's future peace and stability - in the hands of his political foes.

Nepal's reinstated parliament took a significant step toward peace Sunday by unanimously passing a resolution to elect an assembly to draft a new constitution, the first such election in the country's history. But analysts warn that Nepal is nonetheless in for a bumpy ride as it starts the transition toward democracy.

The Maoists want to justify a war that has claimed more than 13,000 lives in a decade by pressing for a republican constitution, ending the role of the monarchy. Nepali Congress and its splinter group, Nepali Congress (Democratic), which hold a combined majority in parliament (113 seats out of 205), are still looking for a ceremonial space for the monarchy. The new prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala, is president of Nepali Congress.

"There is likely to be a sharp polarization on whether to retain a ceremonial monarchy or retain the monarchy at all," says Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of Samaya, a weekly news magazine.

Maoist spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara, in a phone interview with a Nepali daily Sunday, welcomed parliament's decision. Mr. Mahara made no mention of the Maoist demand for "unconditional constituent assembly elections."

Mr. Ghimire says it was significant that the parliament remained silent on whether the elections would be conditional or unconditional, and that the issue would surely crop up when the government formed by the parties holds talks with Maoist rebels to agree on procedures for the assembly elections.

"Modalities and other details (of assembly elections) are yet to be worked out," Ghimire said, meaning that the issue is far from over.

He added that the future course of politics would also be influenced by other key decisions, including no longer categorizing the Maoists as terrorists and removing them from Interpol's Red Corner Notice, an international criminal watch list.

Once an agreement is reached, both the parliament and the government will be dissolved and an interim government formed to oversee the elections. The interim government will govern until the assembly writes a new constitution and elections for a new parliament takes place.

When they entered into an agreement with the rebels in November 2005, Nepal's seven political parties sidestepped the issue of pushing for a republic by agreeing with the Maoists only to overthrow "autocratic monarchy" and work for constituent assembly elections.

However, the second major party in the alliance, the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), which holds 69 seats in parliament, decided Friday that its agenda now was a "democratic republic through constituent assembly elections," raising the possibility of a polarization between the left and center-right.

The Maoist rebels, who have softened their position after their initial rejection of the king's reinstatement of parliament, support unconditional assembly elections, which would mean that everything guaranteed by the constitution of 1990 can be contested. That would include the monarchy. Members of parliament also want to put control of the Army in the prime minister's hands. The rebels declared a three-month unilateral cease-fire on April 27.

With parliament's decision Sunday, there is little left for the Maoists to bargain for on this score, says C.K. Lal, a leading columnist in Nepal. "The road to peace has been paved. It's a delicate road and the big question now is of an able leadership to steer the country forward," he says.

Even if the Maoists can be convinced that the elections are unconditional, the question of disarmament remains. CPN-UML General Secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal, in his address in parliament Sunday, said that the Maoists must lay down arms before participating in an interim government.

But the Maoists' demand for unconditional assembly elections is seen as a move to continue to possess arms while participating in the polls.

Mr. Lal says that dealing with rebels' arms is not an insurmountable hurdle. In their agreement, the Maoists expressed readiness for UN arms monitoring during the elections, after which they would join multiparty politics.

"Of course we need international facilitation, something that the Maoists have agreed to.... If they can't give up arms, they can be made to put them down," he says, adding that most of their guns would eventually rust as the Maoists shifted from using violence to engaging in the country's political process.

Maoist insurgencies

Maoism is a form of communism that mobilizes peasants, as opposed to the urban workers who were historically the prime movers in Marxist-Leninist uprisings. Several Maoist uprisings are active around the world.

India: Naxalite rebels, who have been active in northeast India for decades, killed about 1,000 people in 2005. In one attack last week, Naxalites killed 15 villagers.

Nepal: The Communist Party of Nepal has been fighting a decade-long insurgency that has killed some 13,000 people.

Philippines: The New People's Army is active in 69 out of 79 provinces and has killed 40,000 people since the late 1960s.

Peru: Shining Path guerrillas attempted violently to disrupt nationwide municipal elections last fall. The movement is now dwindling and confined mainly to the southeast of the country.

Sources: ABS-CBN News, New York Times, BBC

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