Sustainable government hard sans coalition culture
Human rights activist and civil society leader Padma Ratna Tuladhar was instrumental in bringing the warring CPN (Maoist) into mainstream politics. For more than two decades since the 1990 democratic change, he has played the role of a political mediator and negotiator. Biswas Baral and Mahabir Paudyal caught up with Tuladhar, who is also involved in current political negotiations, about the status of the ongoing talks, the reasons for misunderstandings between governing and opposition forces, and the likely way out.
You have been involved in the peace process in the role of a mediator right from its start in 2006. How would you evaluate the progress of the peace and constitution making process in the last six years?
Even before the start of the peace process, there had been formal talks between successive governments and the then Maoist rebels. But due to the government’s failure to meet the Maoist bottom-line of round-table conference and Constituent Assembly, there had been no breakthrough. But the mainstream parties came around and agreed to these Maoist demands during the signing of the 12-point understanding in New Delhi in 2005, which helped establish political consensus on election of constituent assembly and end of autocratic monarchy. This atmosphere of trust between political actors created conducive environment for the April 2006 mass movement. At the time, the Seven Party Alliance was led by Girija Prasad Koirala and the Maoist party by Pushpa Kamal Dahal. It was good rapport between the two which allowed for the 12-point accord and successful 2006 protests.
It is said that the sole point of unity between the Maoist and non-Maoist actors at the time of the signing of the 12-point accord was their opposition to monarchy, and with the abolition of the institution in 2008, their latent differences started surfacing again. Is that the case?
Since 1950 there has been a demand for a constitution drafted by people’s representatives, which had also been one of the chief Maoist demands since they started the war in 1996. Hence, so long as the government party couldn’t agree on constituent assembly, talks failed to bear fruit. But the 12-point agreement, with its provision for CA polls, brought all political forces on the same page. Until that time, the parties had not agreed to abolition of monarchy; they were only against absolute monarchy. While the Maoists were all along for a republic, other parties wanted to retain ceremonial role for the monarch. Nepali Congress and CPN-UML had not been able to decide on a republic. But again, it was the understanding between Maoist chairman Dahal and NC President Koirala which helped bring the two parties closer on the republican agenda.
You imply that the parties’ common stand on republic had brought them closer. What then started pushing them apart again?
The interim constitution had emphasized the need for consensus to take the political process forward. But when the Maoists emerged the biggest party in the CA polls, other parties started arguing that if the government was always to be formed on the basis of consensus, no one could remove the Maoists from power. At this point, say the Maoists, other parties asked them to choose between a republic and an amendment of the interim constitution’s provision on consensus for government formation. Maoist chief Dahal told us at the time that since the Maoists could not compromise on the agenda of republic, they agreed to removal of the provision for consensus. This was the time when the atmosphere of trust between the parties started to sour.
You pointed out that amendment of the IC’s provision for consensus was beginning of the cycle of mistrust between Maoist and non-Maoist parties. How has this atmosphere of mistrust evolved over the years?
Though the causes have differed, the country’s problems remain the same: the inability of the political actors to trust one another. The non-Maoist actors believe the Maoists are really out to capture state powers, as outlined in their official documents. Maoist chief Dahal’s removal of army chief further heightened the suspicion that they were really out to capture state powers by rendering all state organs dysfunctional. Dahal had to resign at what he and the Maoists perceived as an attempt to corner them. This took the level of mistrust to a whole new level. If things had worked as planned, Girija Prasad Koirala should have been the first president of republican Nepal—for his leadership of the peace process, his guiding role in the 2006 movement, and his towering national and international stature.
Even Dahal had agreed to it. But as the delay over the formation of new government after CA polls prolonged, the polarization between Maoists and non-Maoist forces started to increase. Finally, the Maoists reached a point where they started feeling that if Koirala was given the presidency, he would establish the president’s office as a power center, severely restricting the prime minister’s maneuverability. The other fear was that the loyalty of Nepal Army would shift to Koirala. This was the reason Koirala’s inevitable ascent to the post of the president had to be aborted. The heightened climate of mistrust at the time still prevails.
The opposition parties fear the Maoists are out to capture state power by prolonging their stay in government leadership. Is this fear justified?
First, you have to evaluate whether there is a climate where one party can capture state power. In my view, both Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai have been among the weakest prime ministers in Nepal’s history. Dahal couldn’t establish an army chief of his choice; Bhattarai couldn’t even establish his pick of police chief.
Do you believe the Maoists have left their ideology of state capture behind?
No, the Maoists haven’t yet said that they have given up Maoist ideology, which is one of the main reasons for mistrust among opposition parties. Even in my interactions with international actors, I like to say that the Maoists are still Maoists as their official documents still talk of a ‘revolutionary’ course. But under current circumstances, the Maoists are in no position to push for a ‘people’s constitution’; the constitution will emerge through agreement between political parties. Both Dahal and Bhattarai have made it clear that they are now in peaceful politics and have no intention of returning to the jungle.
What in your view is the way out of the current crisis?
The opposition parties have been calling on the prime minister to resign, to make way for a consensus government. The biggest tragedy of the ongoing peace and constitution making process in Nepal is the failure of the parties to decide major issues on consensus basis. Yes, the ideologies of the Maoists are polar opposites to those of Nepali Congress. But the 2006 movement was carried out on common agendas, for common goals. Even now, the agendas and goals remain the same. It is to bring a constitution and build new Nepal. Despite this, they have not been able to see eye to eye in recent times. Again, there is no alternative to consensus politics and development of coalition culture. Whoever heads a coalition government is bound by common programs, code of conduct and consensual politics. Without the development of coalition culture, no government will be sustainable. The problem in Nepal is that if someone bags the PM’s post, he tries to run the government according to the whims of his party. The suspicion that if a particular party holds a particular government post in election government, it will have an upper hand in the election is ultimately an un-political, antidemocratic belief.
Nepali Congress has just nominated party President Sushil Koirala as the official PM candidate. Do you see any possibility of consensus emerging on his name?
He can be an alternative. All the parties agree that consensus government is one of the ways to break the deadlock. Even if there is a package deal, government formation will be a crucial part of it. But the question is: what should be the priority? Should it be just a change in government, or also evaluation of the reasons behind the failure to come up with a constitution so far and possible obstacles to the constitutional process in the future? It is not a question of an individual being acceptable as a PM candidate. Also, just because one or two parties settle on a name does not mean that person is a consensus candidate.
There has been a lot of talk about the option of a neutral PM candidate. How do you evaluate its likelihood?
Although there has been a lot of discussion on a neutral PM candidate in the media, I know of no serious discussion on this option inside the political parties. But if the parties repeatedly fail to establish consensus on a name, despite repeated extensions of the timeline for consensus, what happens then? Instead of letting the political deadlock continue indefinitely, pushing Nepal closer and closer to failed-country status, isn’t it a much better option to find an alternative candidate? But first the political parties will have to agree that if they cannot come to an agreement at the end of a particular period, they will be ready to explore a third option. But even in this case, it won’t be an easy task. The civil society is bitterly divided along political lines. Each party is likely to field its own ‘apolitical’ candidate.