On Feb. 3, Jhalanath Khanal was elected prime minister of Nepal, securing 368 out of 601 votes in the Constituent Assembly. Khanal is the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal - Unified Marxist Leninist, and was supported by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal - Maoist, the largest force in the country’s legislature.
This ends a seven-month-long political deadlock, during which time Madhav Kumar Nepal—also a member of CPN-UML—functioned as caretaker prime minister. However, this major development is just the latest in a long history of dramatic upheavals.
Revolutionary war, ‘peace process’ and constitution drafting
On Feb. 13, 1996, the Communist Party of Nepal - Maoist, which added “Unified” to its name after a merger with a smaller communist party in 2009, began an armed struggle to overthrow Nepal’s despotic monarchy. After 10 years of “people’s war,” the Maoists controlled much of the countryside, and an urban-based mass movement forced King Gyanendra to relinquish absolute power.
After several delays, the election for the Constituent Assembly, the legislative body tasked with drafting a new constitution, was held on April 10, 2008. The Maoists received an overwhelming mandate, winning nearly 40 percent of the seats—more than its two closest competitors, the capitalist Nepali Congress party and the largely social democratic CPN-UML, combined. The next month, the monarchy was abolished and the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal was proclaimed.
As per the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Maoists and the legal anti-monarchy parties, two major tasks were to be completed in the Constituent Assembly’s two-year term. One, the Constituent Assembly was to draft a new constitution to institutionalize the gains won by the Nepalese people. Two, the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Army and the government’s Nepal Army were to be integrated into a single national army. The Maoists saw army integration as a way to neutralize one of the main reactionary forces.
After the Constituent Assembly election
After the election, Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoists, better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, was elected prime minister and formed a government with the CPN-UML and Madhesi People’s Rights Forum, which represents the interests of the oppressed Hindi-speaking population near the border with India.
Prachanda and the Maoists now had to grapple with a new contradiction—between the forces within their ranks who want to continue working within the parliamentary bourgeois democracy that replaced the monarchy and those who advocate completing the democratic revolution by leading a “People's Revolt” to seize power and establish a “People's Federal Democratic Republic.”
In May 2009, Prachanda dismissed Rookmangud Katawal, the head of the Nepal Army, for resisting efforts at army integration. In a move that blatantly violated the interim constitution, the largely ceremonial president, who came from the reactionary Nepali Congress, ordered Katawal to remain in office. In protest, Prachanda resigned from the government and the Maoists returned to their stance as the country’s largest opposition movement.
A new government led by Madhav Kumar Nepal, from a right-wing tendency inside the CPN-UML, was formed with the backing of the Nepali Congress and several small parties. In response, the Maoists launched several national campaigns that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets demanding civilian supremacy over the Nepal Army and the end of Prime Minister Nepal’s government. The agitation culminated with a massive rally on May Day, 2010, and a subsequent general strike that shut down the country for six days.
By this point, it had become clear that the new constitution was not going to be drafted by the May 28 deadline. After weeks of tense negotiations, an agreement was reached at the 11th hour in which the Maoists supported a one-year extension of the Constituent Assembly’s term in return for the resignation of Prime Minister Nepal.
However, for seven months no candidate was able to secure a majority vote to become the next prime minister. Only after 17 rounds of voting was Jhalanath Khanal able to claim the post, receiving the Maoists’ support. Some headway was made in writing the new constitution, but 83 of the most highly disputed issues are yet to be resolved. There is, for instance, still no agreement on the critical issue of how the People’s Liberation Army and the Nepal Army should be integrated.
Uncertainties facing the new government
Strong disagreements within and between the three major parties promise to make the new government’s job extremely difficult.
Even the victorious CPN-UML is deeply divided. After Prachanda’s 2009 resignation as prime minister, the right-wing tendency within that party gained the upper hand, led by then-Prime Minister MK Nepal and the virulently anti-Maoist KP Oli. This faction wanted to continue the so-called “democratic” alliance with the bourgeois Nepali Congress, and strongly opposed their party’s promotion of current Prime Minister Khanal.
At the same time, as previously indicated, there is an intense internal debate among the Maoists, which has received wide public exposure. While some journalists and leftist organizations have speculated about a looming split, the same was erroneously predicted when the Maoists debated, quite publicly, the 2006 ceasefire. Without adding to such speculation, it is important to understand the current line struggle being carried out.
After the May 28, 2010, deadline passed, Chairman Prachanda, Vice Chairmen Baburam Bhattarai and Senior Vice Chairman Mohan Baidya—better known as Kiran—all wrote separate political papers each proposing a distinct strategy. These were debated at a countrywide plenum involving 7,000 Maoist cadre last November.
Bhattarai argued for “Peace and Constitution,” advising the party to compromise on key issues to complete army integration and constitution drafting, while Kiran argued for “People’s Revolt,” urging immediate preparations for an urban-based insurrection to capture state power. Prachanda argued that peace and constitution should be the focus until the new May 28, 2011, deadline, but alternatives could be sought if the deadline was missed.
In December, Kiran and Prachanda merged their documents and the party majority decided to begin preparations for a “People’s Revolt” that would be carried out only if efforts for peace and constitution were obstructed. Bhattarai’s trend opposed this position, arguing that it would prematurely stimulate Nepal’s reactionary forces into action. This faction also dissented from the majority’s decision to support Khanal from the CPN-UML for prime minister, calling for the party to only support a Maoist-led government.
The Nepali Congress, deeply divided in its own right, is outraged that it has lost its alliance with the CPN-UML. A senior Nepali Congress leader recently commented that the Maoists’ coalition with the CPN-UML “put the entire peace process at risk.”
The establishment of a new government does not mean that the parties will suddenly find common ground on key constitutional questions. Khanal’s agreement with the Maoists to proceed with genuine army integration will stimulate reactionary forces among the Nepal Army leadership and the far right. Already, they are ominously warning about the Maoists’ influence over Khanal. These mounting pressures, which reflect competing class strategies and visions, are bound to test the new prime minister, his government and the operational unity of all parties involved.
As it becomes less and less likely that the Constituent Assembly will complete its tasks on time, Western powers and the Indian government, which has a long history of violating Nepali sovereignty, are likely to intensify their interference. Under the name of “peace-making” or “conciliation,” their main aim will be to forestall an acceleration of the revolution. Progressives and revolutionaries worldwide will have to keep their eyes open to all such intrusions, and demand complete self-determination for Nepal.
Ultimately, in this fluid and uncertain situation, the actions of the Nepalese people and the leadership of the revolutionary forces will be decisive.