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Nepali Politics Faces Everest of Obstacles

REUTERS

The pioneers of Nepal’s 8-year-old democracy movement are not proud of their creation.

Politics is so dirty in this Himalayan kingdom that few eyebrows were raised in September when lawmakers halted parliamentary proceedings to wrestle with each other and smash chairs, microphones, tables and glasses.

“Our democracy is past the stage of infancy,” the Rising Nepal daily wrote in a tongue-in-cheek column that dubbed the House of Representatives the “House in Continual Pandemonium.”

“Eight years down the long, tortuous road of democracy, Nepali politicians have finally demonstrated to all what it takes to be an able parliamentarian: some biceps and triceps, and a dash of skills to put them to good use.”

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Man Mohan Adhikary, president of the opposition United Marxist-Leninist Party (UML), shakes his head. Before the revolving door of politics started in the mid-1990s, he said, “things were not so ruined, not so anarchic, not so corrupt.”

Adhikary, 78, was the first of five men to climb the slippery pole to the premiership after the 1994 elections yielded a hopelessly fragmented parliament. An ardent champion of democracy, he was jailed three times after 1960, when the father of the present monarch disbanded an elected government and imposed direct rule.

Today, he wonders where the struggle for multiparty rule, which was finally restored in 1990, has led the country, one of the poorest in the world.

“We, the UML and the Nepali Congress Party, are not proving too experienced in running the system,” he said. “We are not in a majority. They are not in a majority. The result was that we had very unpleasant alliances, unprincipled ones. So this degenerated our concepts and disenchanted our people.”

Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, Adhikary’s rival and another jailbird in the days before the king became a constitutional monarch, is no less despondent. “We should not boast that our country has had five prime ministers,” said the die-hard anti-communist whose centrist Nepali Congress party rules in alliance with the hard-line Marxist-Leninist (ML).

Koirala, 73, said the unlikely coalition was a “travesty of fate” forced on his party because it could not survive on its own with just 88 seats in the 205-member lower house of parliament.

But analysts say Koirala’s acceptance of the ML as an ally could be a ploy to keep the country’s many communist rivals apart in coming general elections, which he plans to call in April or May next year, six months ahead of schedule.

Adhikary, whose party split last March into the UML and the ML, said Koirala is in “a very fragile situation. This alliance between the ML and Congress could explode at any moment because sections of Congress do not like it.”

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Indeed, there is growing dissent within the Nepali Congress. Many accuse Koirala of running the party with an autocratic hand and promoting his family members, charges he denies.

Both the UML and the Nepali Congress say they are confident of securing a majority in next year’s poll. But with the four parties that won seats in 1994 now divided into six--as a result of power struggles rather than ideological differences--another hung parliament is looming large.

Erich Spitaller, the International Monetary Fund senior resident representative in Katmandu, says Nepal needs political stability to put its economy back on development tracks.

Nepal adopted liberal economic policies in 1992, but 45% of its 22 million people still live under the poverty line, and its gross domestic product growth, which has averaged around 4.5% a year since the mid-1980s, fell to less than 2% in fiscal 1997-98.

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Critics say frequent government changes have brought delays and inconsistency to development programs, more than 60% of which are financed by foreign aid, and blocked much-needed fiscal and banking reform.

“Political instability is not something that can benefit appropriate development and appropriate privatization,” Spitaller said.


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