Nepali Times
'The talks will not break down.'

Surya Bahadur Thapa assesses his government's performance after the first 50 days in office as prime minister for the fifth time. He also talked to us about the response to the Maoist letter, and says cabinet positions are being kept vacant for political parties to join an all-party government

Nepali Times: How would you grade your first 50 days?
Prime Minister Thapa: Our problems are interlinked, and they are three-fold: the Maoists, the parties and day-to-day governance. Governance is satisfactory, we have held informal talks with the Maoists, overall the peace process is on track. The parties have their stand and I have requested them repeatedly to reconsider it.

But Baburam Bhattarai's response to your letter sounded uncompromising. Is the peace process in jeopardy?
In every negotiation process there are ups and downs, it's natural. It was going well with the Maoists, and the letter is a hurdle. But we will respond to it. Things may look uncertain, but actually this is just them strengthening their bargaining position. It's a bit premature to say what our response will be. We are holding consultations.

How soon will it come?

But Baburam's letter seeks guarantees from the king for the peace talks.
There is a government here, there is no question about dealing with anyone else. It is the government that gives guarantees.

What then is your message to the people?
The people are understandably worried by the Maoist problem. And when they see these hiccups, it's natural they get nervous. But I want to assure them, there is no need to fear that the talks will break down.

The parties seem more defiant than ever.
We are still trying, and we have assured them that we will be tolerant and not use force against constitutional forms of protest. Actually, I must tell you that we have been carrying out private dialogues with the parties at various levels.

Your cabinet has only six members. Isn't that a problem?
It is a strategic decision. We want to be able to invite political parties to join the team, we kept it open for them. If we had filled it up with our own people there would have been allegations that we are not serious about working with them.

So, can we deduce that the reason the parties haven't accepted is because they are not satisfied with the portfolios you have offered?
Maybe I was not able to go as far as they wanted, but till recently I was part of their six-party alliance. We had three main demands: executive power should be with the government, the prime minister should be able to form his own cabinet and we should function under the spirit of the constitution. We formed this government with those guarantees. Now, the parties want the reinstatement of parliament or an all-party government, and even there we see a divergence between the UML and the Congress.

What is your priority: to resolve differences with the parties, or resolve the Maoist problem?
The Maoist problem. The problem with the parties is a temporary phenomenon. The Maoist issue needs a longterm solution, it has greater weight and importance. But we will try to address both issues simultaneously.

What options are you looking at: parliament reinstatement, elections, or other alternatives?
Reinstatement is a matter of debate, I don't have any preferences either way. On elections, the entire resolution of the present political crisis rests on holding them, the setting up of a new parliament and the formation of a new government. We want elections as soon as possible and we have even budgeted for it. What remains to be seen is how the peace process with the Maoists goes ahead. That is the crux of the matter.

But can't we look at elections also as a way to resolve the Maoist issue?
I agree. But it's a chicken or egg question. You can't have elections without the Maoist problem being resolved and you need elections to be able to find a longterm solution to the problems of representation.

The Maoists have repeatedly said that they will oppose elections now.
The Maoists fear a new parliament will validate the present constitution and they want a constituent assembly. We have to work on a compromise with them, that is the only way we will find a new direction.

Is it really true that the king reverted executive power to you?
Absolutely. His Majesty has been cooperating very sincerely, and the government has enjoyed complete executive power. The only test of this will be to look at performance, who makes decisions, and whether there is delivery.

The level of criticism of the monarchy today is unprecedented in Nepali history.
I think it is an emotional manifestation of a particular moment when certain decisions had to be taken. The criticism is born out of frustration in some quarters, and it is a temporary thing. The ones who are raising slogans now will get tired pretty soon.

Our headline, then, will be: no reinstatement of parliament and no derailment of talks.
I am certain the talks will not be derailed. But I can't say there won't be a reinstatement of parliament. So, you don't have a headline. (Laughs.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)