Nepali Times Asian Paints
Polls apart?


It could be war-weariness, it could be the monsoon lull, they could just be catching their breath, or there could be genuine indecision about what to do next. One or all these factors seem to be egging both the Maoists and the government to seek a face-saving formula that will pave the way for relatively free elections in November.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba was forced to call early elections to outmanoeuvre his rival, Girija Prasad Koirala. But having staked all on elections, he loses big if they are called off, postponed, or if campaigning is marred by serious violence.

The Maoists, despite all their macho talk, have also decided that this is not going to be the quick revolution they had planned for. Their casualties are heavy, supply lines are disrupted, and the Indians are cracking down across the border. But more than all of that, they now see that disrupting the coming elections may end up pitting them against an adversary unshackled by civilian control.

For the Nepali people, November could be an opportunity to show not so much which party they prefer, but to vote in a virtual referendum on democracy. Since the turnout would be a key indicator, it would be in the interest of the Maoists (and anyone else who doesn't believe in parliamentary democracy) to keep voting low through violence.

The Maoists call the shots: they have propelled themsleves into the position of being able to determine whether elections are held or not. This is a strong bargaining chip. If elections can't be held, then the ensuing constitutional crisis will allow the king to invoke Article 127 and use his power to find a way out of the impasse.
Many see that as taking the country back to square one, circa 1990. But the uncertainty is rooted much more in the Maoists' next move.

As the manifestos are prepared and the Election Commission hears the Congress factions fight it out over the tree symbol and party flag, many remain uncertain about the polls. The UML, for its part, seems so tantalised by an impending victory that it doesn't want to entertain any doubts about polls.

Narahari Acharya of the Girija faction told us: "I see two major obstacles to holding free elections: the state of emergency and the Maoist problem." The emergency is due for another extension in two weeks, and since the Maoists are far from defeated, the army would prefer renewal.

Maoist Chairman Prachanda in his extra-conciliatory 9 August statement appealed for "dialogue to end the emergency and find a positive political resolution". But he followed that up with a warning that this flexibility shouldn't be seen as a weakness, and therefore force his group to "attack those who support elections". The threat to agree-or-else couldn't have been more explicit.

The convergence of interests of both the Maoists and the government to let elections go through presents a window of opportunity to agree at least on a truce. So far, the government has publicly demanded that the Maoists first give up their weapons. But secretly, emissaries have been going back and forth to see if there can be a compromise.

If they genuinely desire a truce (even if it is to just regroup and re-arm), the Maoists need to do more to prove that they will not double cross the government this time. The Maoists admit that at least five of their central committee members have been arrested or killed and that one of every five people killed by security forces is a party worker. The government has arrested hundreds of rebel supporters, some of whom have provided valuable intelligence. Still, the hardcore Maoist fighting force is intact. And they are quite capable, if the talk of truce doesn't get anywhere, to resume attacks in the build-up to next month's strike.

No one is expecting the Maoists to join the election fray, but they could use it as an opportunity to push like-minded leftist parties who could act as a de facto political wing to push through their agenda for constitutional change and a referendum. "That would help them to legitimise their politics and keep the issues alive," a Maoist watcher told us.

There appear to be at least two separate and highly secretive behind-the-scenes efforts to get the two sides talking. "The Maoists are even willing to announce a ceasefire provided they get an assurance of reciprocity from government," a source close to one of the peace initiatives told us. Another Maoist condition is that the emergency be lifted, and the publication of the names of detainees.

A breakthrough was getting to be a real possibility last week when the police suddenly decided to make a belated announcement of an Interpol notification on the most-wanted rebel leaders. That seems to have temporarily put a spanner in the works, and convinced some that there are elements in the establishment who think that a truce would cause the counter-insurgency campaign to lose momentum.

"We have been able to build some trust between two sides," says Sudip Pathak of the Human Rights Organisation of Nepal. "Everyone knows elections cannot be held in a situation of terror and even if they are held it may not be free and fair which is why the peace is essential." Pathak is one of three human rights activists who have been trying to re-establish contact between the government representatives and the Maoists. Shyam Shrestha, who had mediated between the government and the Maoists in the past, thinks that if the Maoists have wanted to come to talks at any time, it is now.

But Shrestha adds: "I sense there are forces that don't want the two sides talking." An indication of that is the arrest of Krishna Dhoj Khadka, said to be among those that had made the last round of talks possible.

There are interlinked factors at play: the Maoists have suffered major losses, but are still capable of disrupting elections, and the government can legitimise itself only by holding elections. Which makes talking truce the only exit strategy for both sides. Unless the plan all along was to create conditions in which elections can't be held.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)