A nationwide general strike called by Nepal's Maoists on Sunday has paralyzed life throughout the country, and cast doubt on the nearly four-year-old peace process aimed at bringing the Maoists into the political mainstream.
Tens of thousands of Maoist supporters have taken control of streets in Katmandu, demanding that Prime Minsiter Madhav Kumar Nepal – who succeeded Maoist chief Prachanda stepped down last May – allow the Maoists to lead a new government.
Nepal’s Maoists fought a 10-year insurgency until 2006, when they agreed to enter a peace process.
In 2008, Nepal met a key Maoist demand of abolishing its 240-year-old monarchy and held elections for a special assembly in which Maoists won the most seats and took over the government. Since Prachanda stepped down after a row over the Army chief, they have sought to return to power, arguing that, with the largest number of seats in the assembly, only they have the people’s mandate to lead.
Prime Minister Nepal, who has support of 22 of 25 political parties in the assembly, or just over 55 percent of assembly seats, has refused to step down. He has challenged the Maoists to oust him through due parliamentary process.
The standoff has put on hold the goals of the peace process, to settle the future of some 19,000 combatants corralled in camps monitored by the United Nations, and to promulgate a new constitution by May 28. It has also divided analysts over which side should soften its position.
Protests: democratic right, or bullying tactic?
The protests have been largely peaceful, with protesters shouting antigovernment slogans and singing and dancing on the streets. The Maoist party has been trucking in food and water for the supporters, brought in to Katmandu and neighboring districts.
Schools and businesses have been shut and transportation blocked, though civil servants are commuting to government offices on foot.
Many seem dismayed by the shutdown. “On the face of it, the protests are peaceful. But the protests have prevented Nepalese citizens from enjoying their rights,” says Krishna Khanal, a political scientist at Tribhuvan University in Katmandu. “It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that people’s rights are protected. The prime minister has to step down.”
According to Mr. Khanal, parties in the government have grown unnecessarily defensive. “It is wrong to keep the country’s biggest party out of the peace process,” he says. “Given their performance in the 2008 election, the Maoists have more legitimacy than Premier Nepal, who lost election from both the constituencies he contested from.”
But some analysts, such as Narayan Wagle, editor-in-chief of the daily Nagarik, say giving in to the Maoists will amount to a permanent handover of power. If they can oust a government through force, they can prolong the life of their own government using the same force, he argues.
“If this strike continues for weeks, a shortage of essentials will create chaos and even newspapers will have no option but to write editorials demanding the premier’s resignation. This has been Maoist strategy since wartime. They create chaos and force their agenda to prevail,” Mr. Wagle says.
Both sides dig in
Ruling parties are in no mood to yield to Maoist pressure.
“The Maoists have not been honest with their commitments to return seized property, disband their semi-militant organization, stop intimidation tactics, and transform into a civilian party,” says Arjun Narsingh K.C., spokesperson of Nepali Congress, the largest party in the government.
“This raises enough doubts about their intentions. If they are allowed to oust the government through force, the might continue to govern using force, and probably forcibly thrust a constitution of their liking upon the country,” he adds.
Maoist spokesperson Dinanath Sharma defends the shutdown, saying that in a democracy, streets are the last resort for the opposition.
“Are peaceful protests banned in a democracy?” he questions. “We waited for a year for the government to meet our demand. We were forced to take to the streets.”