Sun, Oct 07, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Little change a year after Maoists joined mainstream


At least there's no war. With 13,000 people dead during more than a decade of fighting, people here will tell you that's one good thing.

But nearly a year after Nepal's Maoist militants left their Himalayan bases to join the political mainstream, raising hopes that this country's government could finally become more than a regional sideshow, politics remains deadlocked by feuding parties and overshadowed by the former insurgents.

And in Nepal, a poverty-wracked country where most rural people struggle by in a semi-feudal existence, political pessimism has become the rule.

"I was naive enough to believe that things would change," former finance minister Devendra Raj Pandey said. "I thought the parties would change, and that the Maoists would come around to accepting this new political reality."

Instead, "they have all thoroughly disappointed the people in every sense of the word," Pandey said.

On Friday came one more disappointment when, after days of arguing, the political parties and the Maoists agreed to postpone the elections to select the Constituent Assembly, the body that will draft the country's new constitution.

It was the Maoists who pushed for the postponement, increasing the pressure on the ruling alliance after quitting the government last month.

Nothing should happen, they say, until their demands are met. The monarchy, they insist, should be immediately abolished -- though the once-absolute ruler King Gyanendra retains little power since street protests forced him to bring back democracy last year. They are also demanding procedural changes to the election system for the Constituent Assembly -- technical modifications that appear aimed at ensuring the Maoists capture as many seats as possible.

In many ways, that should come as no surprise. Democracy is messy, particularly in a country with such meager democratic experience, and for the Maoists to engage in Himalayan gerrymandering could simply mean they understand how to play the game.

But to force such a major change in the process -- particularly so early in the political transition -- is what worries many people.

"We have been let down by the Maoists. We are compelled to make changes to the election only because of them," Peace and Reconstruction Minister Ram Chandra Poudel said after the postponement. "All the parties in the government were ready."

To see the more mainstream politicians as the good guys, though, is too simple.

Nepal's political class -- which has grown in fits and starts since the late 1940s, with years of slowly expanding democratic power offset by years when politicians were thrown into prison by various kings -- is wildly unpopular, seen as highly corrupt.

"The people have no other choice with politicians," said Prateek Pradhan, editor of the Kathmandu Post. "They can't go back to the monarchy, and can't surrender to the Maoists."

But, he said, the country will go nowhere unless the former insurgents remain in politics.

"We can't have elections without the Maoists, they wouldn't be credible," Pradhan said.

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