Nepal's PM Resigns, in New Crisis for Maoists

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Deepa Shrestha / Reuters

Nepal's Prime Minister Prachanda announces his resignation from his office during a nationwide broadcast in Kathmandu May 4, 2009.

The merger seemed improbable. On one side was the Nepalese Army. On the other, the 19,000 Maoist rebels it once battled ferociously in the jungles and hills — the same Maoists who were elected to power with the end of the monarchy the army had supported for decades. But the eventual integration of the enemies was an inescapable clause in the peace accord that brought the rebels down from the hills and into the halls of parliament.

The threat of union, however, has now led to a parliamentary crisis in the young Himalayan republic. On Monday, in a dramatic climax to a televised address to the nation, Nepal's Maoist Prime Minister Prachanda resigned after the President thwarted his move to sack the country's army chief. The army chief, Gen. Rukmangad Katawal, who had close ties to the fallen monarchy, was against taking in "politically indoctrinated" soldiers — a clear reference to Prachanda's Maoist brethren-in-arms. Since the peace accord, the Army has opposed full integration, fearful that the Maoists would then insinuate themselves into the military power structure. Facing intransigence, Prachanda directed that the general be fired. But President Ram Baran Yadav ordered Gen. Katawal to remain in office, with a presidential spokesman calling the sacking "illegal and unconstitutional." (See pictures of Nepal's uneasy peace.)

The overarching fear was for the hard-won peace. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, more popularly known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, had been Prime Minister for just eight months and, while popular, has had to weather several political and economic crises. The concern over a break with the military was whether the Maoist rebels would then return to armed conflict — or that the military would stage a coup to avoid having to absorb them. Supervised by the United Nations, the guerrillas are increasingly restive, residing in military bases for two-and-a-half years now while awaiting integration. (See pictures of the Maoist insurgency at the height of its war against the government.)

The debate had roiled the country for months since the Maoists won a larger-than-expected number of seats in last year's elections. With that mandate, they started pressing for an integration of the guerrillas en masse. The Army said it preferred to be more selective about the process. "What the Maoists wanted to do after being energized in their win was to go against the gentlemen's agreement," says Kanak Mani Dixit, Nepali journalist and political analyst, "they started demanding complete merger. They injected deep distrust among all political players." (Check out a story about the massacre of Nepal's royal family.)

The army, as well as the opposition parties, suspected the Maoists were trying to inject their cadres into the military to bring it under control. At the same time, the guerrillas were growing impatient, annoyed that their role in the new Nepal had yet to be defined. Prachanda then precipitated the crisis by trying to replace Katawal with the more pliable Lieut. Gen. Kul Bahadur Khadka. However, the Maoists' leftist allies in the legislature disagreed with the decision and, on Sunday, the Communist Party of Nepal and the Sadbhavana Party withdrew support from the government. Prachanda had two choices then: to attempt to set up an autocracy or to follow democratic principles. Prachanda announced his decision the next day: "I have resigned from the post of prime minister from today for the protection of democracy and peace."

Analysts believe the Prime Minister's decision to resign actually strengthens democracy, showing his commitment to parliamentary procedures, a good sign for the fledgling democracy born after 10 years of violence and political floundering. "He has taken the democratic high road of parliamentary practice," says Dixit, "This is a very good harbinger of the democratization process." This is the reason why the crisis, while definitely a dark cloud, has a very bright silver lining. "It will affect the peace process obviously, the integration [of former rebels into the army] also. The constitution-making process will be delayed, and the country's economic condition, already serious due to the global downturn, will worsen," says Nihar Nayak, Associate Fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute of Defense and Security Analysis. "There may be street demonstrations, general strikes, road blockades, but no return to the jungle. Whatever action will be taken, will be within the Nepali constitution, and in a democratic way."

Another reason analysts are optimistic is that the Maoists still have enough popular support. Nayak points out that in parliamentary by-elections for six seats last month, the Maoists won three. Also, they wouldn't want to turn international opinion against them again. "The last few months of Maoists' rule has shown a certain lack of statecraft," says Dixit, "They sought to weaken all institutions of state. Now they're faced with losing face while in government. Prachanda's decision is definitely good for his personal image, though his followers may be nonplussed."

Those restless followers remain the root of the problem. Says Dixit: "What I would hope for is that the integration or rehabilitation of individual combatants may go back to how it was supposed to be — by giving individual soldiers a choice, and inducting those into the army that meet the criteria. Otherwise, it would have weakened Nepal."

The most likely scenario for the coming days — in addition to street protests led by Maoists and their sympathizers — is for the next largest party to form a government. "Nepal cannot afford another election," says Nayak, "The government has not even completed one year. The President may ask the Nepali Congress [the second biggest party] to form a government, or may ask Prachanda to revoke his decision." A coup is almost ruled out: Nepal's army has no history of seeking political power, furthermore it knows it has the support of the President and the other political parties. "All other parties are working on permutations and combinations. Ideally, the Maoists should join a national all-party government — which would be in the best interest of the peace process," says Dixit, "If Prachanda can surprise us with a speech like today, he can probably surprise us again!"