Koirala death deals new blow to fragile Nepal government

Former Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala's death could undermine the fragile Nepal government, which has until May 28 to write a new constitution. Mr. Koirala loomed large in Nepal's transition from monarchy to republic after a long civil war with Maoists.

Buddhika Weerasinghe/Reuters/FILE
Nepal's Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala attends the concluding ceremony of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Colombo in this August 3, 2008 file photo. Koirala passed away on Saturday.

Amid the unhurried daily schedule of its prime minister – inaugurations, speeches, and the like – it wouldn’t appear Nepal is struggling to lay a solid foundation for peace, restructure its state, and write a constitution.

But the tiny Himalayan nation wedged between China and India has only until May 28 to conclude these mammoth tasks. And progress has been scant since a special assembly was elected in April 2008, analysts say, the result of a political logjam between Maoists and rival parties that has overshadowed larger goals of concluding the peace process and holding a general election.

At the source of Nepal’s political inertia are disgruntled Maoists. Led by former rebel chief and former Prime Minister Prachanda, the Maoists, who fought a deadly civil war with the government that ended in 2006, left the government last year after a dispute over firing the country's Army chief, and have subsequently paralyzed the government with strikes and blockades.

The death this weekend of former Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, a key player in helping Nepal shift from a monarchy to a republic and the only political leader with the political capital to resolve differences, has added complications, raising concerns about a rightist resurgence that could further undermine a fragile peace process and throw Nepal into a new crisis, analysts say. If the May 28 deadline is not met, the elected assembly that doubles as a parliament, and the government it elected, could collapse.

“With him gone, a rightist line that has been taking shape in the Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) in reaction to the radical line of the Maoists is likely to grow more assertive,” says Krishna Khanal, who teaches political science at the Tribhuvan University. “Koirala had been neutralizing that line. But now, a clear polarization is likely.”

With 230 members in the 601-member assembly, the Maoist vote is indispensable to pass provisions in a new constitution, which needs endorsement by a two-thirds majority. And without Maoist cooperation, the future of some 19,000 fighters corralled in UN-monitored camps cannot be settled.

Maoist powersharing deal

The central goal of the Maoists appears to be a powersharing deal. While heated debates in the assembly over federal models, election procedures, and powers of the president and prime minister give the impression that the peace process has stalled over irreconcilable differences, analysts say that Maoists are creating these hurdles to ensure their spot in the political process.

 “The differences are not insurmountable,” says Narayan Wagle, editor in chief of Nagarik daily. “Once Nepal has an all-party government led by the Maoists, they will be willing to compromise,” he says.

“Asking a former insurgent group that has surrendered its fighting force to also surrender its ideology is asking too much. After all, the twin sources of power of Nepal’s Maoists are guns and an ideology, whatever the merits of that ideology,” he adds.

"Nothing will move ahead as long as the Maoist party is marginalized," says Maoist spokesperson Dinanath Sharma. "We want a new constitution and management of our Army. But regressive forces are plotting to not let that happen."

But the Maoist party is itself in a quandary over proposing a candidate for prime minister. “Prachanda has lost credibility in his own party ranks for taking steps suicidal for his own party. His decision to sack the Army chief isolated his party in domestic politics, while his pro-China rhetoric and activities antagonized India, putting the party in a difficult position,” Mr. Wagle says.

But constitutional expert and columnist Bhimarjun Acharya warns that Nepal is hard-pressed for time, and on May 28 it could plunge into fresh crisis. “There is no provision for extending the assembly’s life, except when there is a national emergency, in which case extension of six months is permitted,” he says.

“Alternatively, parliamentary elections can be called, and the task of writing a new constitution can be entrusted to a technical committee. From the way parties are clinging onto power or seeking to get to power, it is clear that they are toying with this option and want to be in the government when the elections are held, so as to ensure a favorable outcome,” he says.

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