the king’s business

a sabbatical rest, day 104

One of the national pastimes here is talking about the government, or maybe complaining about the government, depending on whether you are in it or not. Rooted in Nepal’s long history as a monarchy, politics is called rajneeti —the king’s business.

The monarchy was replaced with a republic in 2005, but there were several false starts as the process of writing and approving a constitution was complicated and messy. After an interim constitution was extended several times, the current constitution was approved in 2015, well past its 2010 deadline. The current prime minister was the first one elected under the new constitution and assumed office in 2018 with a term limit of five years.

I’m hardly qualified to provide any in-depth analysis of politics here, but I have wanted to provide a general overview. Frankly, I’ve been waiting since we got here for Nepal to form a new government, but the process is dragging out and may not be as imminent as I had expected.

Current situation

The day we arrived in February there was a general strike, with shops and roads closed because of demonstrations against the current government. The demonstrations were actually being held by a faction of the ruling party. Two communist parties, the United Marxist-Leninist (UML) and Maoist Centre (MC) had merged and won the last election, but the merger has always been shaky. The MC half of the party split from prime minister KP Oli and his UML faction, so late last year Oli dissolved parliament, calling for new elections claiming he was being prevented from ruling effectively without the necessary consensus.

Accompanied by a great deal of high-minded hand-wringing by people with their own political agendas, all the parties expressed frustration with this action—the faction (MC) that had been part of the government perhaps most of all. Then last month the Supreme Court ruled that the prime minister could not dissolve parliament under the current constitution.

When parliament reassembled, everything stalled. The government didn’t bring items before the parliament. The prime minister’s former friends (MC) wanted a no-confidence vote but lacked the votes to unseat him; they needed the cooperation of at least two of the other major parties to form a majority. These possible partners have been coy, angling for roles in the new government and other concessions, holding their cards close to their chest, and dealing with factions in their own parties.

In each party, there are some who want to join the current prime minister’s government, with negotiated perks, and (for the first time, apparently) complete a full term under one government. Each party also has some who want to unseat the prime minister with other negotiated perks for themselves. For the good of the country, of course.

To add to the confusion, the court also ruled that the original merger happened under the registered name of a minor party, and they would have to apply as a party under a new name, impossible given the fissures that exist. And the Election Commission has to decide who gets to use the party logo/flag for the next election.

Meanwhile, the leader of the largest opposition party (Nepali Congress) has finally pulled the three major opposition parties into a meeting about forming a new government, which may or may not happen. The political differences between these three parties are as great as the ones between the parties that merged last time, although the Maoists and the Nepali Congress both think they can break out and dominate the next election. The prime minister and his UML faction also think so.

Geopolitical forces

All of this takes place against a backdrop of international interests, mostly those of the USA, India, and China. By interests, I mean power. And money. The USA sees Nepal as a hedge against regional Chinese dominance. India has long seen itself as a big brother to its poorer neighbor and is also resisting Chinese encroachment. And the Chinese, of course, want to dominate the region.

All these forces affect all the factions I’ve described, but the split in the ruling party may be a result of the prime minister’s willingness to spend American money under the Millennium Challenge program and the Maoist faction wanting to cozy up more to the Chinese. I’m not saying the prime minister is concerned about American interests; just American dollars. The US-funded Millennium Challenge, set over against the Chinese Silk Road initiative, provides a great deal of autonomy for the nations receiving the money, but as you can imagine, everybody has different fears or aspirations about this.

There is a lot of money at stake, and the prime minister’s daily activities look like a full-fledged political campaign, opening bridges and factories and public works projects practically every day. He is a strong natural leader, with some Trumpian qualities, while the other potential leaders seem cautious. Or damaged. Perhaps India’s Modi would be a better comparison since, for a secular communist, Oli has a lot of interest in Hindu temples and rituals.

Party structures and political histories of various political actors also complicate the picture, as do the political affiliations of the media and the other 100 or so registered parties. I consider it a real accomplishment to understand (or misunderstand) this much. I’m not making any predictions but will update you if anything major happens.

Observations

I can, however, offer these observations:

  1. There are no clear (or pure) motives here. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Power and corruption go together, and accountability and transparency are elusive, especially in a fledgling democracy like this one. Politics is a messy business, and none of the competing interests, including American ones, offer good models.
  2. I expect ten or fifteen years in the American experiment was also quite messy, with competing ideas about governance and political philosophy. Hamilton and Madison were working through the Federalist Papers between 1787 and 1788, for example. Nepal is also developing a political culture, although there are significant differences, such as the Protestant work ethic and a commitment to property rights that framed America’s beginnings.

But since my grammar checker tells me I have used too much passive voice and have written five sentences over 40 words long, I’ll stop here. Coming soon, an even less ambitious overview of economic issues. And something more fun, like a culinary or cultural dispatch. Or both.

So much to learn.

So much.

You can now hear an annoying robot read my blog. Check out the automated podcast.

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