Nepal held national, provincial and local elections in 2017, all under the terms of the constitution promulgated two years earlier. That constitution and those elections are tangible results of the ten-year civil war that gripped the Himalayan country from 1996 to 2006 and the lengthy peace process that followed.
The elections established a guaranteed 40 per cent representation for women at the municipal level and 33 per cent at the provincial and national levels, making Nepal the South Asian country with the best representation of women in elected government. Other previously marginalized and underrepresented groups were also elected to the national and provincial parliaments through quotas.
Nepal is emerging from a history of feudalism and conflict to stand as a remarkable example of inclusive democracy – at least in terms of its political structures. Now, the test for Nepal’s lawmakers will be to make sure that these successes result in real gains for the people of a country often overlooked between its giant neighbours, India and China.
Why did the Maoists revolt?
In 1996 Nepal’s Maoist party (of which I was a member) launched what became a protracted war calling for Nepal’s radical socioeconomic and political transformation. This armed movement directly challenged Nepal’s relatively new multiparty democracy, restored in 1990 after decades of absolute rule by the monarchy.
When the Maoists started their rebellion, there was considerable international concern, particularly among Western liberal democracies. This concern was prompted by comparisons to other Maoist movements, bringing to mind the guerrilla war waged by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru, the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge during their brief but bloody rule in Cambodia (1975–78), and the excesses of Mao Zedong’s government in China. More generally, the appearance of a new Communist movement in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall was an ideological challenge to the new global order. These concerns were shared by Nepal’s elite, who benefited from maintaining the existing order. To place Nepal’s Maoist movement in context, it is useful to take a brief look at the country’s recent history.
Nepal has had a relatively peaceful history. In the decades before the emergence of the Maoist movement, there had been a few armed political groups, but no organized large-scale armed movement. In contrast to other countries, including in its southern neighbour India, diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious communities had generally coexisted.
This could be because of the extreme geography and climate that dominate large parts of Nepal; the Himalayan and Annapurna mountains stretch from east to west, giving way to (relatively!) smaller mountains and foothills that in turn roll into the Terai, or flatlands, in the southern reaches of the country. Like Canada’s northern communities, Nepal’s mountain peoples need to support one another regardless of their differences to survive and thrive. Despite enormous diversity – the country boasts around 103 ethnic groups speaking over 100 languages – there is hardly any mention of serious communal tension or violence in Nepal’s modern history. The peaceable nature of Nepali society has been a national trait valued by most Nepalis.
Members of what was to become the Maoist movement were part of that society, but we resorted to arms in response to Nepal’s terrible socioeconomic and political conditions. The restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, following a popular uprising that ended 40 years of more or less absolute monarchical rule, had offered great hope, but it was soon clear that as long as the feudal structures overseen by the King remained intact, multiparty democracy would not bring the changes that were so desperately needed.
For more than 200 years, since King Prithvi Narayan Shah consolidated the physical boundaries of the modern state of Nepal in the mid-18th century, life for ordinary Nepalis changed little. The few reforms that took place were inadequate to meet the challenges of the 20th century, let alone the 21st.
For too long Nepal had lagged behind. A small group of families fought for power in Kathmandu while local kings and princes used traditions and religion to extract what wealth they could from a population excluded from education and often, thanks to the landscape, cut off from the world. A brief democratic moment arrived after the Second World War, when the quasi-royal Rana family was overthrown, but the traditional royal family, the Shahs, took advantage of the democrats’ weakness and regained control.
The Shahs came under pressure in the late 1980s. The 1990 constitution was the result of a compromise between the King and the parliamentary parties following a popular uprising that coincided with a global wave of democratization. That “People’s Movement” promised a lot but delivered little. The Royal Nepal Army (RNA) remained under the King’s direct control. Untouchability, as part of a rigid caste system, continued to be practised in large parts of the country. Marginalized groups, especially women, were tortured and killed on the basis of superstition. Slavery persisted. The King was the protector of the religious institutions preserving these values; many continued to worship the King as an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu. The palace and a handful of wealthy families close to the royal family continued to control the country. In short, Nepal’s elected governments had little real power.
Seeing this, many educated young people like me were convinced that as long as the monarchy remained in place, the country could not experience the socioeconomic transformation it needed. Seeing parliament as a dead end and knowing the King would ultimately depend on the capable and professional RNA, the Maoists needed an organized military force. Our demand was democratic: elections to a Constituent Assembly that would draft a new constitution.
The Maoist movement
Soon the movement was joined by frustrated young people from around the country. Many were from the villages and rural areas, excluded because of poverty, lack of education and lack of opportunity from the economic development that was largely restricted to a few cities and the “Kathmandu bubble” around the capital. In a country where women were legally, socially and culturally second-class citizens, the rebel movement was remarkable for attracting so many young women, who eventually made up 40 per cent of the party’s structure. Other marginalized groups such as Dalits (formerly known as untouchables, the lowest level of the traditional Hindu caste structure) formed the core of our support.
From the outset, the state responded with harsh reprisals, including the killing of innocent people in villages where the Maoists were active. As often happens, this had unintended consequences for the royal government. Growing repression led to growing dissatisfaction and growing support for the Maoist movement, which by early 2000 had spread to most of rural Nepal and become one of the largest – if underground – movements in Nepal.
Armed conflicts have their dark and ugly sides. Many young men and women died in the movement; many more were imprisoned, disappeared, injured and disabled. Their only fault was to dream of a better Nepal. Many of the youths who died possessed irreplaceable skills and talents that would have taken the country to a greater height. Young people with the commitment to work and possibly die for an idea are rare. On the other side, many committed public servants, mainly from the security forces, also died. I have previously mentioned Nepal’s pacific culture: this influenced the Maoist leadership to formally agree to peace negotiations in 2001, just five years after the start of the armed movement.
Negotiations in 2001 and 2003 were unsuccessful. The parliamentary parties leading the government refused to hold an election for a Constituent Assembly – the core demand of the Maoists – on the grounds that it was outside the framework of the existing constitution. They also refused to negotiate on our demand for a republic, again saying it was outside the existing constitutional framework and therefore beyond their authority to negotiate. Despite these failures, the Maoists continued dialogues with government and nongovernment representatives, including international organizations such as the United Nations, requesting their assistance to facilitate the end of the conflict.
Meanwhile, the royal government was under increasing internal pressure. A succession of coalition governments failed to confront endemic corruption and develop any sort of coherent plan for reforming the country. In 2001 the then–Crown Prince massacred the King and most of the royal family, undermining the legitimacy of the new King, Gyanendra.
Gyanendra’s political inexperience led him to overplay his hand.
The peace process
In February 2005 the King, saying drastic steps were necessary to end the war, dismissed the democratically elected government. With the backing of the army he seized executive power, imprisoning many parliamentary leaders. Civil and political rights were suspended and a state of emergency was declared. The royal coup forced the fractious parliamentary parties to reconsider their options. The major parties formed the so-called Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and began to protest against the King, demanding a return to multiparty democracy.
In the early 1990s parliamentary parties had led the People’s Movement that restored multiparty democracy, but the situation in 2005 was different. Support for the Maoists had increased throughout rural Nepal. Without them the democratic movement could not be successful. With the parliamentary parties forced outside the King’s law, they had a new commonality with the Maoists, in addition to a concrete appreciation of the danger posed by the monarchy. The SPA quickly negotiated a partnership with the Maoists based on the overthrow of the authoritarian royal regime and the restoration of multiparty democracy.
The Maoists were evolving too. There was growing consensus that multiparty competition is inevitable and necessary to achieve the social and economic reforms we wanted. Many leaders, including me, concluded that the failure to embrace institutionalized multiparty competition caused rigidity and even corruption which undermined many Communist governments around the world. That competition, within the guarantees of an inclusive constitution, is probably the best means to ensure the representation of the popular will in the government.
The SPA and the Maoists signed a formal peace agreement in November 2005, a document known as the 12-Point Peace Understanding. The Maoists committed to ending the civil war in return for the parliamentary parties’ commitment to electing a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution of Nepal. The parliamentary and Maoist parties launched a second People’s Movement. This remains the world’s only example of an armed Maoist party reconciling with parliamentary parties.
The partnership was quickly successful. In April 2006 nationwide protests culminated, after 20 days, in massive marches in Kathmandu. The public ignored a shoot-to-kill curfew and, on April 24, Gyanendra relinquished absolute power and the dissolved parliament was restored. It unanimously called for elections to the Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution and initiated formal peace talks with the Maoists.
The Constituent Assembly, a republic and a new constitution
With the war over we started drafting an interim constitution that would provide the legal framework for the planned Constituent Assembly. I was part of the drafting team and we were proud of the many progressive provisions included in Nepali law for the first time. For example Nepali women won the right to pass citizenship to their children.
The drafting team agreed to a mixed electoral system; under the proportional system each major demographic group, including women, was allocated seats in parliament according to its proportion of the population. This meant that women would make up 50 per cent of the seats elected under the proportional system and hence were guaranteed at least 33 per cent of the total seats, a huge increase from under 5 per cent in the previous parliament. Madhesis, the dominant ethnic group in Nepal’s southern flatlands who had seen their interests ignored by a political class dominated by “hill” tribes, were also guaranteed seats according to their share of population, as were Dalits, indigenous groups and geographically isolated regions. The interim constitution provided a voice for many previously neglected communities; to me it made the sacrifices of the armed conflict worthwhile.
After two years of political wrangling, which saw the conclusion of a formal peace and the beginning of a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program to disarm the Maoist People’s Liberation Army and return the police and army to their peacetime size and functions, elections to the first Constituent Assembly were finally held in April 2008. Despite tensions and setbacks, including sporadic outbreaks of violence, the elections marked a turning point: they showed the Maoists were ready to be judged by the people. Many, including most of the international community, had doubted the Maoists’ intentions, anticipating a return to conflict.
The election results came as a shock to many analysts, particularly international observers. Most expected the Maoists to trail the two traditionally dominant parties, the Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or UML. The assumption was that Maoist support stemmed in large part from fear of violent retribution and that, in an election monitored by the United Nations, Carter Center and others, support for my party would be fairly low.
The observers missed important facts. For ten years the Maoists were the only party close to the people in much of the country. Most important, our campaign offered real change: we had fought for the rights of women and for the alienated and marginalized segments of the population. The other parties had been in government off and on for years and had not succeeded in bringing about change. The elections delivered a landslide for the Maoists, who won 225 of the 570 seats in the Constituent Assembly, with the NC at 110 and the UML at 103. I was fortunate to be among the newly elected members.
It was a true revolution through the ballot box. The Maoists’ revised strategy had worked – and worked well.
The first meeting of the Constituent Assembly voted to immediately abolish the monarchy. Nepal became a democratic republic and, with that, the Maoists had achieved our core demands: an elected assembly to draft the new constitution, the creation of a republic and an inclusive parliament.
A series of continuous and often frustrating negotiations for the new constitution followed. While agreements on many issues were reached without drama, the major political parties could not agree on three crucial issues. The Maoists wanted to see the introduction of federalism, a presidential system and a first-past-the-post electoral system, while the two other major parties were not convinced that Nepal needed provincial governments and supported a parliamentary system and proportional representation.
Meanwhile, in November 2011, outstanding issues around the Nepal Army and the People’s Liberation Army were resolved as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and a parallel Agreement on the Monitoring of Arms and Ammunition. With that, the armed struggle was fully at an end. The Maoist party became another ordinary party, relying on the support of ordinary Nepali people to maintain its strength and influence. This process caused minor divisions inside the Maoist party, and a group of hardliners defected to create a new party supposedly intent on resuming armed conflict. They attracted very little support.
Day-to-day squabbles within all the major parties were more damaging. As the Maoists adjusted to the rapid switch from guerrilla army to government they often found it difficult to focus on the job at hand: finalizing the new constitution. At the same time, having fully abandoned their arms and armies, the Maoists found the other parties less willing to compromise. In what too often looked like the same old political manoeuvres, the Constituent Assembly repeatedly failed to meet deadlines to finish its work. After many extensions the 2008 Constituent Assembly was dissolved by court order without finalizing the new constitution.
New elections were held in November 2013, with the parties swapping positions. This time it was the old-guard NC on top, with 196 seats, the UML in second with 175, and the Maoists – taking responsibility for the slow pace of constitution writing – winning 80. Coalition governments continued, with the new assembly upholding the agreements made by the first assembly and focusing on contentious issues. It took nearly two more years before the new constitution was finalized and promulgated on September 20, 2015.
The Maoist party compromised as much as possible to reach a constitutional accord. It agreed to a parliamentary system with the prime minister as head of government even though it was committed to a directly elected presidential system. Other demands, for a constitutional court and for a 100 per cent single-member-constituency electoral system, were also set aside.
The new constitution institutionalized democracy and created structures to maintain peace; multiparty elections and a commitment to gender equality and diversity based on population are enshrined in the preamble. The Nepal Army is under the control of a democratically elected executive and a ceremonial president as titular head of state. Nepal, formerly the only officially Hindu country on earth, is now a secular state – all religions now enjoy equal protection. Federalism has been introduced and seven new provinces have been created on the basis of social identity and geography. The foundation for a full democracy has been laid, a huge improvement over the partial democracy won in the 1990s. It is impossible to dispute that this was made possible because of the Maoist movement.
Obstacles remain. Madhesi parties were not satisfied with provisions in the constitution related to federalism and began a series of often violent protests against the government. With Madhesis representing a large part of the population, this situation raised real concerns about whether the new constitution could be enacted. According to the new constitution, national, provincial and local elections needed to be held by February 2018.
In 2017, a Maoist-led government held talks with the Madhesi groups and a deal was reached to hold local elections after a gap of nearly 20 years. The local elections guaranteed 40 per cent representation of women, with either the mayor or deputy mayor of every constituency being a woman. Council seats were also reserved for Dalits.
In November 2017, an NC-led government in coalition with the Maoists conducted national and provincial elections. Election observer missions declared that the voting was generally peaceful. Politically, Nepal was becoming a normal country.
Before the election the Maoists and the UML had formed a Leftist Alliance, which was effective and popular with party cadres and the public, unlike other efforts that had proved more symbolic than real. The leaders of both parties decided to work toward full party unification following the election.
The Leftist Alliance secured an overwhelming majority. Of the 275 seats, the Alliance won 184: 121 for the UML and 63 for the Maoists. The Alliance won power in six of the country’s seven provinces (with Maoists becoming chief minister in two); in Province Two an alliance of two Madhesi-based parties took a majority. UML leader KP Oli became prime minister, with Maoist support.
Negotiations are ongoing between the Maoists and the UML to merge. If that process concludes, a chapter of Nepal’s political history will end. By agreeing to merge with the UML, the party with the most vibrant internal democratic structures and a strong focus on local government, the Maoists acknowledge that the revolution against feudalism and authoritarianism is over. Unique among Maoist parties, Nepal’s Maoists made sacrifices to create a strong democracy and are now willing to give up their party’s identity to move to the next step in the only battle that matters: delivering better government to the people of Nepal.
The Leftist Alliance campaigned for stability and economic development. With quickly changing and unstable governments identified as a primary cause of Nepal’s slow development, the Leftist Alliance’s promise of stable government led to its winning overwhelming support in 2017. The challenge is to maintain collaboration between the UML and the Maoists or to complete the unification process. Regardless, the newly formed government must remain stable for five years. If the Alliance succeeds, efforts previously wasted on political games will be expended for national development instead.
The second challenge is to ensure that the new Constitution satisfies, as much as possible, the aspirations for full inclusion among the country’s profoundly diverse ethnic, national, linguistic and religious communities. Madhesi groups are demanding further amendments to the new constitution and those demands must be addressed so deep-rooted resentments are not planted. But the government has to be aware that not every grievance can be addressed, or else the constitutional battles of the last dozen years will continue. The Maoist movement arose from the last period of democratic failure: we cannot allow history to repeat itself.
The third challenge is to implement the constitution. Elections have been held, but the state infrastructure and working culture needed to make its values real have yet to be established. A particular challenge is the change from a unitary to a federal structure. It will take time for a government used to thinking of every problem in terms of Kathmandu to adjust to a country with eight capitals. It will take as long to build provincial capacity in everything from policy development to budgeting to service delivery.
The fourth challenge is to bring the opposition, especially the Nepali Congress, on board with a program to deliver real change. The NC was in government from 1950 to 1960 and again, with brief intervals, from 1990 to 2017. The party sees itself as the guardian of Nepal’s institutions. It continues to enjoy support from so-called civil society organizations and the international community – in part because many of its leaders are foreign-educated and English-speaking and in part because they are the only non-Communist option among Nepal’s major political forces. Government by democratic Communist coalition is a hard concept for many to accept in 2018.
The Madhesi-based parties remain outside government, except in Province Two, and the close links between the Madhesi population and India means continued contention on the southern border. Without the cooperation of the opposition and close coordination with neighbours and the broader international community, it will be hard to implement the constitution. Maoists are aware of the reality of globalization and we are doing our best to accommodate all legitimate internal voices and work with friends around the world.
The fifth challenge, linked to the fourth, is to achieve the proper balance between our northern neighbour China and India, and then to establish strong relations with the United States and Europe. Except for China, these are all non-Communist governments that may feel unnerved by democratically elected Communists in the 21st century.
The sixth challenge is to change the working culture within government institutions, in political parties and among the people. A good constitution and government are not sufficient if a weak working culture remains in place. Bad habits and cultural practices must be tackled if this government is to be judged a success. Twenty years ago, few would have imagined a federal Nepal where the rights of women and Dalits were honoured. Change is possible.
The seventh and most important challenge is for the government to fulfil its commitments. Until 2017 the challenge was to achieve democracy. The royal family and their supporters could be blamed for the many dark episodes that dotted Nepal’s history. Now there is no room for excuses. Unemployment, underdevelopment and corruption are scourges. The Leftist Alliance has to take visible steps to reduce their weight on the people. Many commitments have been made; now is the time to deliver.
Sitting between two emerging superpowers, with a constitutional framework that combines respect for the country’s diversity with the need for a strong government, Nepal’s new government has a rare opportunity. The Leftist Alliance’s strong majority in parliament and control of most provinces means that the energy of the politicians, the public sector and the people can be dedicated to reforms that will address the immediate needs of the people. Governments with strong mandates either look inward, becoming complacent because they do not face immediate political threats, or look outward, to projects that can transform the country. I am hopeful that the Alliance will take the second path, and take Nepal to the next, brighter chapter in its development. We have come a long way in a short time, but Nepal’s people have even higher mountains to climb.