Fate of Monarchy a Sticking Pointby Jude ( )
KATHMANDU, Oct 4 (IPS) - As Nepal emerges from a week-long annual holiday to celebrate the Dasain, the most important religious and cultural festival of the majority Hindus, the country is again faced with the problem of getting the coalition government to sit down for talks with armed Maoist rebels.
The Seven Party Alliance (SPA) government, which came to power last April on the heels of a peoples' uprising against King Gyanendra, is scheduled to hold crucial "summit" level talks with the Maoist leadership on Oct. 8. But the meeting is fraught with uncertainty and has already been postponed twice.
The reason is not so much the diverging positions between the SPA and Maoists, but differences within the SPA over key issues. Consisting of seven partners, the alliance's agenda is largely decided by the Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML). The rest are minor parties.
At stake in the summit is the fate of an interim constitution, dates for constituent assembly elections to write a new constitution, and eventually, Maoist participation in a provisional government. Most analysts here agree that without a substantive agreement with the Maoists on these issues, Nepal, which has been enjoying a rare bout of peace since late April, could once again lurch back into anarchy and violence.
"The summit, if it happens, will set the agenda for the next year and half. It could institutionalize the fragile peace process, provided all sides are serious in reaching an understanding," says Narayan Wagle, editor of the influential Kantipur newspaper..
But just four days ahead of the summit, the Congress and UML still have not bridged their significant differences. Sources within both parties told IPS that there is division over the crucial issues such as the fate of the monarchy, mode of constituent assembly elections and issue of citizenship.
"We are hopeful that we can reach an agreement in time for the summit," says UML leader Jhalnath Khanal. "Both our parties are working to iron out the differences."
That is an upbeat assessment not shared by the Maoists. Just this week, Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (also known as Prachanda) voiced fears that the summit would be postponed again because of the Congress and UML's inability to reach a common position. He has also said that his party will not sit down for just another meeting without guarantees of "substantial progress".
With the situation fluid and the summit uncertain, pressure is building on the Congress and UML to iron out their differences. According to leaders in both the parties, the differences centre around the monarchy, an institution which has reigned in Nepal for 237 years.
The April uprising forced a dictatorial King Gyanendra to recede into the background, but many parties now want to abolish the institution itself. The Maoists have for long demanded a republic in Nepal, and now the UML too is calling for the same.
"The April uprising was against the monarchy, so we are in favour of abolishing it for a republic," says UML leader Khanal. "But we want to do that in a democratic manner. We have therefore proposed a referendum on the institution. Let the people decide what they want through the process."
The referendum idea is accepted by the Maoists who have already called to "suspend" the monarchy till such a plebiscite, but not by the Congress. Though many of its rank and file are rooting for a republic, the Congress leadership, personified by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, is keen to retain a "ceremonial monarchy" in the interests of "national unity."
Though Gyanendra is now politically isolated, hundreds of pro-monarchy citizens gathered outside the royal palace in Kathmandu during Dasain to receive the traditional blessings from the man that many Hindus still regard as a deity.
"Our leadership does not agree to abolish the monarchy," says a senior Congress leader who requested anonymity. "They are fearful of going into a referendum on this issue." The Congress, he said, would prefer the monarchy issue be settled by a future constituent assembly rather than the referendum.
Others however fear that taking up the monarchy issue would sidetrack the constituent assembly from the more urgent tasks of restructuring the state into a more inclusive and liberal multiparty democracy.
The other bone of contention between the Congress and UML is the question of how best to conduct the constituent assembly elections. The Congress wants to retain the current 205 member parliament and convert it into a constituent assembly. It is also proposing that another 204 members be elected on proportional representation basis. But the UML says the Congress proposal is too cumbersome.
"We are proposing proportional representation as the basis of the constituent assembly elections. This parliament was elected in 1999. It has already run out its mandate. Besides, adding 204 more delegates will needlessly complicate the matter," says Khanal.
The remaining contentious issue of citizenship, particularly granting of citizenship certificates to the nearly 4 million 'Madhesis' living in Nepal's Terai plains. Madhesis are people of Indian origin, but many have lived in Nepal for generations. The Congress is proposing that citizenship be granted them on the basis of voter rolls of the 1990 elections.
But the UML, which fears erosion of the Nepali identity by an influx of Madhesis, is proposing voter rolls on the basis of the 1979 Panchayat referendum.
"We can work out a compromise on these issues if there's sufficient time. Perhaps there will be compromise soon," says Chakra Bastola, a senior Congress leader.
But time is something the parties do not have. Oct. 8 is just around the corner, and continued differences could lead to a meaningless summit with the Maoists, or worse, another postponement.
That would almost certainly rile the Maoists, who have repeatedly threatened an "urban uprising" to press for speedy resolution to the issues. For they know, only if the two major SPA constituents agree on a common position will their summit be meaningful, opening the way for the Maoists' participation in a provisional government under an interim constitution.
"The Maoists are anxious to join the provisional government. They see the Congress and UML as needlessly delaying the process," says a diplomat who has closely been monitoring the peace process. (END/2006)