Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nepal’s fresh start, or last chance?

A new Prime Minister, driving a Nepali-made SUV, may be just the answer this young republic is looking for

By Benjamin Graham
August 30, 2010

Never has a simple SUV attracted as much attention as did the four-door Mustang Max that drove through the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal on Monday. Riding in the vehicle was Nepal’s newly elected Prime Minister, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, who chose to drive the Nepali-made car to his swearing-in ceremony and his new office at Singha Durbar, Nepal’s parliamentary building. Bhattarai’s choice of transportation breaks a long standing tradition among Nepali Prime Ministers, who usually opt for expensive, foreign-made luxury autos.

The discreet SUV, which lacks air-conditioning and power windows, much less bullet-proof glass, brought crowds of interested citizens to the streets and caused a firestorm of chatter on social networking sites.

“Nepal made mustang jeep is new ride for New PM, Will he be able to live up to the people's expectations? He certainly has the potential!” tweeted KC Bishal, a Nepali living in the US.

“Good thing the #PMBRB (Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai) picks Mustang vehicle. Gives hope for the country.” said Guna Raj Luitel, executive editor of the Annapurna Post daily in Kathmandu, via twitter.

While the choice has garnered praise from citizens and the media, some are still reluctant to be openly optimistic.

The new Nepali leader comes into office under difficult circumstances. The day after Bhattarai was sworn in, the deadline for the completion of Nepal’s new constitution was extended another three months, to November 30. Since the end of Nepal’s 10-year Maoist insurgency and the beginning of democratic elections in 2008, the constitution’s deadline has been extended three times. Many believe this most recent extension will have to be the last.

The excitement and cynicism expressed by many Nepalis hints at a country approaching a tipping point. Some hope Bhattarai, riding in his Nepali-made car, marks a different kind of Nepali leader--one ready to put the will of the people ahead of self-interest. Others believe time is running out for Nepal’s political establishment to get its act together.

In 2008, the 601-member Constituent Assembly (Nepal’s parliament) was elected and given the task of writing a new constitution. The Maoist party won the most seats, followed by two more-established parties, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal - United Marxist Leninists. But power struggles between the parties, and even within the parties, have resulted in political deadlock time and again.

The main point of contention lies is the fate of the remaining Maoist combatants, known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), who have been waiting in camps and barracks across Nepal since the war ended in 2006. The Maoist political leaders have been reluctant to disarm the PLA without major concessions from the other two parties on monetary compensation for PLA soldiers and their integration into the Nepal Army. The completion of the peace process would enable the constitution to be written.

Hailing from a rural village in western Nepal, Bhattarai is the fourth Prime Minister to serve since the election of the CA. He gained fame as a leader of the Maoist insurgency, and played a critical role in the transformation of the Maoists from a rebel group to a political party.

Bhattarai was educated at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India and is viewed by some as both an intellectual and a man of the people. Others see him as part of the same political establishment that has led to the current gridlock.

By winning the support of smaller Madhessi parties, based in the southern Terai region of Nepal, Bhattarai was able to gain a majority in the CA. This new coalition will be pitted against the Nepali Congress and UML, but cooperation between the two sides is critical if any progress is to be made in the coming months. Fortunately, Bhattarai is known as a moderate within his own part.

The euphoric energy at the end of the Maoist insurgency and the birth of the Nepali republic has slowly waned over the last five years. Some are allowing themselves to be optimistic about Bhattarai’s intentions, a sentiment boosted, no doubt, by the car he now drives, but many remain skeptical. If serious progress isn’t made on the peace process and the constitution isn’t written by the next deadline, Nepal will enter the political unknown.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, Benjamin! We sure never hear about the politics of Nepal in our news sources! We've been reading about Nepal lately and we are amazed at the many people groups make Nepal their home. Hope all is well with you.

    Aunt Cathy