Thousands of Nepalese are celebrating in the streets of the capital Kathmandu and other cities after the Constituent Assembly in its first meeting on Wednesday declared the country a republic. Although a momentous step after 240 years of monarchy, the decision to get rid of King Gyanendra as head of state might still prove to be an easy one, compared with the controversies the Constituent Assembly will have to address in the coming months. Thomas Bärthlein looks at some of the issues ahead:
The Constituent Assembly in Kathmandu
Almost all of Nepal is celebrating today. Only a few sympathizers of the monarchy remain to regret that King Gyanendra will have to vacate his palace within 15 days. Actually, the royals have only themselves to blame. The dynasty dealt itself the biggest blow back in 2001 with the infamous royal massacre which killed the previous king, Birendra, along with half of his family. Gyanendra’s ill-advised attempt to restore autocratic rule in 2005 finally sealed the monarchy's fate.
Difficult government formation
The biggest question right now is: What comes next? Who will be leading the new republic, and what will it look like? Nepalese voters surprisingly made the Maoists the strongest political party at the April 10 elections. But they don’t have an overall majority in the Constituent Assembly, and on their own are far away from the two-thirds majority needed to elect the new government.
The Maoists' Chairman Prachanda has not been able to form a coalition so far. The major parties seem to have agreed on some points, though: There will be a strong Prime Minister, most probably Prachanda himself, and the President will be a figurehead, a post taken possibly by veteran Congress leader G.P. Koirala. But a full power-sharing arrangement still needs to be worked out. And the fact that last-minute squabbling between the parties delayed the first meeting of the Assembly for hours does not augur well for future cooperation between them.
In order to make them join the government, the Maoists will have to convince the other parties that they are serious in their commitment to fair play within the parliamentary system. So far, many Nepalese find it hard to believe that the Maoists have completely renounced violence. Thousands of former rebel fighters are still in camps, and people are also wary of being bullied by the Maoists’ youth wing. In the last few days several incidents gave cause for conern: On Wednesday, three people were shot dead by police in Western Nepal after they had protested against an attack by Maoists on a local journalist. And last week, a businessman was found dead after being tortured and killed by Maoists in one of their camps.
On the other hand, the established parties -- the centrist Nepali Congress and the United Marxist-Leninists (basically Social Democrats, despite the name) -- would probably do well to draw some lessons from the people’s mandate. The Maoist victory may in part have been due to some degree of voter intimidation, but first and foremost it is an expression of people’s dissatisfaction with the traditional parties and their performance in government.
The Nepalese people expect better governance, less corruption and infighting among the politicians, but they also voted for a redistribution of power and resources. Whereas Nepal has been ruled for centuries by a small elite – Kathmandu-based, high caste, male –, the new Assembly gives representation to different underprivileged groups on an unprecedented scale. Not only have the Maoists fielded many candidates from poor social strata and ethnic minorities, regional parties also did very well in the plains bordering India, the so-called Madhes.
The demands of these new political forces will have to be accommodated by the Constituent Assembly – which is not going to be a smooth process. To mention just one example: There is general agreement that the "New Nepal" will be a federal state with certain powers going to regions. But will there be big provinces which hold most of the powers as the Madhesi leaders want? Or will the national parties be able to retain a strong central government?
Yet there is enough reason to be optimistic and celebrate in Nepal today: The civil war which killed some 13,000 Nepalese seems finished for good. The constitution-making process offers a unique chance for a new beginning. Independent media and a strong civil society will help to remind the politicians of their responsibilities. And, last but not least: Nepal has become a republic.