New government, but is it a “new Nepal”?
In a twist of history, the Minister of Information and Communication in Nepal’s new government is the former spokesman of the Maoist People’s Army, Krishna Bahadur Mahara. Along with four other Maoists, he was sworn in at a ceremony on Sunday 1 April. The oath, lead by 85-year-old Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, was broadcast on national television, which Krishna Bahadur Mahara is in charge of from now on.
This was “a historic day for Nepal”, Maoist leader Prachanda proclaimed, paving the way to a “new Nepal”. The two top leaders, Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai, are not in the government, but the Maoists have ministers for Local Government, Information, Planning and Works, Forestry and Women and Children. Their party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), have as many ministers as the Congress Party and the Communist Party Unified Marxist-Leninists have. These two parties have been the leading ones in Nepal over the last 15 years. The ministers promised to act “responsibly for the sovereignty of the nation and the people” and Koirala said improving law and order was a priority. Elections for a Constituent Assembly will be held on 20 June.
The new government has been installed almost a year after the “April revolution”, when a mass movement overthrew king Gyanendra’s dictatorial rule. Millions were on the streets, defying the king’s shoot-to-kill orders. Workers were on strike and the majority of young people were out on the streets protesting.
The movement was not, contrary to some media reports, organised by the Maoists, but spontaneous and self-organised. One reason was that the Maoists’ main base was in the countryside, not in the cities.
The effects of the mass movement were huge. “The last nine months have been completely transformative,” says a newspaper editor in Nepal, “historically marginalized groups such as those of low caste and oppressed ethnicities have suddenly awakened” (Los Angeles Times, 22 March 2007).
The plains rise up
One new feature this year has been the strong movement of the Madhesis, the people of the southern plains of Nepal, the Terai. In violent demonstrations and strikes they have demanded better representation in the “new Nepal”. They constitute around 40 per cent of Nepal’s population, but have long been discriminated against. Their Indian origin has been used to compromise their civil rights, such as the right to vote or work. Unemployment in Nepal is officially 40 per cent, one of the highest in the world, but even higher in the plains.
When Madhesis launched their protests, burning copies of the new interim constitution, a state of emergency was established. Twenty seven people were reported killed in clashes with the police and army. The Maoists by then were already taking their parliamentarian duties seriously. “In an embarrassing and ironic gaffe, Maoist leaders, champions of revolution by the downtrodden, suggested calling in the army to quell the movement” (Los Angeles Times). Maoists have also been in violent clashes with the Madhesis.
This is one of many issues were Maoists and their supporters can split, since the People’s Army always claimed to fight for rights of minorities. One of the Madhesi groups, the Terai People’s Liberation Front, is ex-Maoist.
In an attempt to limit the protests, parliament in March decided to reserve more seats for ethnic minorites, including positions in the government. The first comments from Madhesi activists, however, were critical of the decision and said the protests, including disrupting trade, would continue.
After almost ten years of “people’s war”, the Maoists made a u-turn in 2005. They formed a pact with the Seven Party Alliance, i.e. the parties of the parliament the king had dissolved in February the same year. Following the April revolution, the Maoists agreed to dissolve their armed forces and enter the government and parliament.
In line with these agreements, 30,852 Maoist combatants with 3,428 weapons have registered in UN controlled camps. In exchange, the CPN (M) got 83 seats of 329 in parliament.
The Maoists were always a politically unclear movement. Their main demand since 1996 was for a republic. They now hope to abolish the monarchy via the Constituent Assembly. In areas they controlled, they introduced several reforms, such as collective farms. However, they never attempted to build a democratic revolutionary worker’s party in the cities. They are stuck in the Stalinist-Maoist “two-stage theory”, in which a “democratic” capitalist stage is separated from socialist struggle and demands.
The real question is what world capitalism can offer Nepal. Experience has shown that genuine democracy is a utopian dream under the capitalist system in Nepal which can only survive through the periodic attempt to crush the working class and peasantry’s wish for a better life.
Nepal is one of the least urbanised and least industrialised countries in the world. Forty per cent of the population lives on less than one dollar a day. Its GDP per capita (purchasing power parity) is only half of its neighbouring giant India. There is a shortage of clean water and widespread child labour.
On a capitalist and nationalist basis, no Maoist ministers will be able to improve these conditions. Instead, new crises are inevitable and could even happen around the planned elections in June. Any honeymoon will be short-lived. Within the new government, each party will blame others for shortcomings. There will be huge strains and likely splits among the Maoists, since the leadership seems fully committed to the new course, including good relations with imperialist powers such as the European Union.
From behind the scenes, the monarchy will wait for a possible comeback at a later stage. The king had absolute power from 1960-90, and tried to re-establish it in 2005.
But Nepal has also seen the strength of mass movements, even in an economically underdeveloped country. This was the case in 1990, when the king was forced to legalise political parties, and not least in last year’s movement. Also under the Maoists, the possibilities of an alternative were shown, although in a distorted way.
There is a need for a new, genuine revolutionary party in Nepal, democratically controlled by the workers, allied with the peasants and the urban poor. Such a party would fight for nationalisation of the wealth of the royal family and the big companies and build alliances with workers and the poor in all neighbouring countries. It would fight for a socialist Nepal in a socialist confederation of south Asia.
Per-Åke Westerlund, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden)