Will the Nepali Maoists go the Hamas way?

The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) pulled off an upset over the traditional ruling parties such as the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) in the elections to the Constituent Assembly (CA).

Once the results for the 240 seats decided on first-past-the-post and the 335 seats decided on the basis of the proportional electoral system are tallied, the Maoists are likely to be the single largest party.

The rest of the seats will probably be divided equally between the NC, CPN-UML and the newly established Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF). With a third of the seats, the Maoists will have veto power in the constitution writing process and can claim the prime minister's position in the new coalition government.

Will Nepal's new Maoist-led government stand a better chance at governing than the short-lived 2006 Hamas-led government in Palestine? The Maoists in Nepal and Hamas in Palestine share several characteristics.

Both conducted long armed struggles against the state - Hamas against Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Fatah party-led government; the Maoists against the 240-year-old monarchy and the Nepali Congress-led governments since 1996. Both are proscribed parties on the US terrorist list.

Both recently participated in elections and won. Hamas won the March 2006 elections by running on a platform of clean government and service delivery, while the Maoists won on their populist platform of federalism, secularism and inclusion of the economic under class (and the threat to "return to the jungle" if they lost). For the Maoists, hopefully, this is where the comparison with Hamas should end.

The subsequent trajectory of the Hamas-led government is something that the Maoists may not want to replicate. In April 2006, Hamas formed the new government with its pragmatists. The Hamas leadership talked about negotiating with Israel and recognised previous agreements.

However, the new government was a dead duck since the Israeli establishment reacted to the Hamas victory with threats. The Israeli defence minister declared that all the 74 newly elected Hamas representatives were candidates for Israel's targeted assassinations.

Embargoes were imposed by the Quartet (the US, the European Union, Russia and the UN) in retaliation for Hamas's unwillingness to recognise Israel and previous agreements. Governance for Hamas was impossible as international aid and the monthly Palestinian tax revenues collected by Israel were frozen.

It could not pay the salaries of over 160,000 civil servants leading to chaos on the streets and charges of "toothless government". The breakdown in internal security went hand in hand with more Israeli incursions, and the inability of the Palestinian Authority's security forces to control clashes between Fatah and Hamas supporters. Some analysts rightly blame the West and Israel for provoking a return to the destructive polarity in the Palestinian national movement.

Faced with international sanctions, Israeli military strikes and ultimatums, the hardliners in Hamas gained ascendance over the pragmatists. The internecine warfare between Hamas and Fatah reached civil-war-like proportions; the Saudis stepped in with the Mecca Agreement in February 2007, which broke down in June. Today, Hamas controls Gaza while the Fatah effectively controls the West Bank with the West and Israel siding with the latter.

Israeli forces that constantly occupy Palestinian areas have arrested more than 6,500 suspected Palestinian militants in the last year. The peace process with Israel has stalled as Gaza struggles with a crippling blockade and almost civil war-like conditions.

Will the Maoists in Nepal face a similar scenario? There are several factors favouring better prospects for the Maoists and democracy in Nepal. First, the institutional set-up in Nepal favours compromise. Unlike Palestine where there were primarily two main parties - Fatah and Hamas - locked in a struggle and the winner took all, Nepal has several parties in the fray.

The winner, the Maoists, has to include at least one or two other parties in the coalition since no party will be able to form a government on its own. This means sharing power with the old ruling party, the Nepali Congress, and with the new entrants like the MJF, a hitherto excluded minority (often called Indians) from the Terai region.

Moreover, all parties will have to work together in the constituent assembly in order to pass clauses in the constitution with a two-thirds majority. The Maoists with a third of the seats will have veto power but not enough to ram through their agenda. So, structurally, the current set-up favours dialogue and compromise between parties.

Second, unlike Palestine where government funds dried up because of embargoes, no such conditionalities have been imposed on the Maoists. It would be wise for Prachanda to issue a statement eschewing a return to violence. The Maoists will face a difficult battle to kickstart the Nepali economy (current growth at three percent per annum), but nothing on the scale as Hamas' travails. It would behove India to lean on the US to take the Maoists off their terrorist list.

Third, unlike Palestine where Hamas had to face incursions by Israeli forces, the Nepali Maoists do not face external threats. It is true that the Maoists will have to find a way to merge their People's Liberation Army with the Nepal army that had been its main foe, but they will not confront Hamas' problem of controlling the parallel Fatah security forces.

But avoiding the Hamas route is going to be very difficult. It requires several moves from the political players. First, a peaceful transfer of power to the Maoists by the old ruling Nepali Congress is very important.

Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal a.k.a. Prachanda has already met outgoing Prime Minister G.P. Koirala to discuss options. In Palestine, the Fatah was unable to cope with losing the elections, thus grimly mirroring political scientist Przeworski's dictum that democracy involves the willingness of political actors to accept democracy not just as a route to power but as a system where "parties lose elections".

Second, the Nepali Congress and UML should participate in the new coalition. At present, hardliners in both the parties want to opt out and weaken the Maoists at every juncture. India, despite its open support to these parties and its disappointment over the results, should ensure that such a scenario does not occur.

Third, the Maoists have to find a quick and efficient way to demobilise and/or integrate their forces into the army. Otherwise we will see a descent into a spiral of strikes by recalcitrant civil servants loyal to the previous regime, which will cause administrative and economic problems, which will be further stoked by the opposition parties, which will fuel anger and violence among the Maoist cadre.

The question in Nepal is not only whether Nepal's new Maoist-led government will compromise and work with other parties to ensure stability in the country. The prior question is whether Nepal's Maoists will be given a chance to govern by their rivals as well as by external powers like India, China and the US. If the above conditions are met, the Maoists stand a better chance at making a success of their government than Hamas did.

(Shylashri Shankar is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. She can be reached on shylashris@gmail.com)  


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