The rise of Maoists in Nepali politics: from ‘people’s war’ to democratic politics

Authors: Ramesh Sunam and Keshab Goutam, ANU

Since its formation in 1994, the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) has gone through a number of radical transformations, shifting from a guerrilla warfare unit to a key democratising force within Nepali politics.

The party’s early history is defined by its role in launching the ‘people’s war’ of 1996, a decade-long civil war that resulted in the loss of some 16 000 lives and halted the country’s economic development. The Maoists’ original aim was to benefit the poor and marginalised sectors of Nepali society by uprooting the monarchy and feudalism.

Today, many people question the necessity of the war. But the conflict did succeed in providing marginalised populations — particularly dalits (the so-called untouchables), women, the landless and ethnic and indigenous people — with a wider political space to articulate their grievances. The result was a series of protests and rights movements across the country by the Madhesi (people from the Tarai lowland) and ethnic populations. Such incidents have in turn facilitated the democratisation of Nepali politics. In the first Constituent Assembly election of April 2008, minorities gained substantial representation for the first time in Nepali history, with dalits receiving over 8.17 per cent of seats, women 33.22 per cent, ethnic and indigenous people 33.39 per cent, and Madhesis 34.09 per cent.

The Maoists have also achieved two other key victories. Following their entrance into peaceful politics in 2006, the Maoists gained the largest number of votes in the April 2008 Constituent Assembly election, winning 220 out of 575 elected seats. But their biggest achievement so far has been the overthrow of the monarchy in 2008. Many analysts maintain that the Maoist-initiated war sped up this outcome by at least a few decades.

Yet the Maoists have failed to make progress on other key matters. Despite the impressive political developments, the Constituent Assembly failed to produce the new constitution it was originally tasked with writing, and its dissolution has left the country in a political and constitutional deadlock.

However, the prospects for a new constitution remain high for a number of reasons. First, the major political parties have recently agreed to form an election government led by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. This government is expected to hold a free and fair election by June this year for a new constituent assembly. Second, pressure from civil society for a new constitution continues to increase. Finally, the international community — mainly the US, the European Union, India and China — is advising the major political parties to take action. The key challenge from here on will be to achieve consensus on disputed issues, such as models of federalism and governance mechanisms.

Another daunting challenge for the Maoists relates to Nepal’s stagnant economy. While many Asian countries including China, India and Vietnam are experiencing unprecedented economic growth, Nepal is still one of the least developed countries in the world with a per capita GDP of US$ 624 and unemployment rate of 46 per cent. Recognition of this harsh reality is probably behind the Maoists’ recent plan for an economic revolution in the country, which they announced at the 7th Party Congress. This is a big shift for a once guerrilla-based party.

Yet there is continuing uncertainty over whether they can accomplish this mammoth task. This is partly because some of the party’s cadres are still seeking to resolve disputes with violence. The party underwent a split after a protracted intra-party dispute into two factions, between a large ‘establishment’ group supporting multi-party democratic politics, and a small ’dissident’ group embracing radical politics using violence in pursuit of a ‘people’s democracy’. This split will certainly diminish their voter base for the next election. The Maoists have also failed to address the peoples’ growing aspiration for change despite having occupied the premiership position twice. This perceived failure, albeit attributed partly to the workings of coalition governments, has triggered widespread fear among the public that the Maoists will become yet another Nepali political party that reneges on its commitments for change.

Since the end of the civil war, the Maoists have gradually shifted their ideology toward one that embraces democratic values and norms. This development, coupled with the growing watchdog function of civil society, signals sound prospects for democracy in Nepal. The future course of democratisation in Nepal is unclear. But it is evident that the Maoist party’s future successes will be measured against its promise to uplift the lives of the poor and transform the Nepali economy.

Ramesh Sunam is a PhD candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. 

Keshab Goutam is a PhD candidate at the Fenner School of Environment, Australian National University. 

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  • Jhamak Nepal

    This piece looks interesting. International communities need to support and pressure Maoists to be more democratic than they are now.

  • Nabaraj Dahal

    Thanks both of you writers for this analytical piece of article that analyses Nepal’s current political scenario and operational analysis of UCPN (Maoist). This is also balanced article as well.

  • Dipak Bk

    Congratulations to both authors for coming with such a nice piece analysing the paradigm shift of the main player in the current political portfolio in Nepal. There is no doubt that the Maoists have been gradually embracing the democratic values and the evidences also shows it. In fact, in my opinion, Nepalese people also want the same. However, the issue of governance within the party should be taken into account. The fact is that the issue of involvement of leader in corruption, luxurious life styles, and completely oversighting their comments made with the general public have made the Maoist party exactly similar to the other political parties in Nepal. I think this is another significant “change” for the Maoist party. Do the authors agree that it is ultimately increasing the number of pessimists? What does the Maoist party need to address? And more importantly, how can the political parties be made more committed to the long term development of Nepal? Perhaps, the authors can use their in depth analytical ability in next article to address these questions. I am pretty sure your readers will love that.

    • Avash

      The rise of the Maoists in Nepali politics has pushed the nation in political deadlock and vacuum. The Maoist led post/Civil war nation has given nothing more than industries closure, youth migration, rebel trade unions, brother group YCL and an economy dependent on remittances and aid.

      We know Maoism is a political theory derived from the teachings of the Chinese political leader Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is believed to have taken Maoism from China as its doctrine.But then China hosted the Miss World Contest, liberalized its economy and invited foreign investment, infrastructure and education development. The Maoist party in Nepal is still into street protesting Miss Nepal Beauty contest, the closure of industry and restricting foreign investment through trade unions and brother groups (YCL).

      Which ideology, democratic values and norms are they following now and why should we have optimistic expectations?

  • Zhang

    Nepal should NOT embrace Maoism. Even we Chinese people know by now that Mao was a mass murderer.

    Do not make the same mistake we did.

  • Vivek Sharma

    This piece is more optimistic than what is the ground reality in Nepal. This actually misleads many people about Nepalese Maoists. the writers are particularly wrong on the follwoing assumptions:

    1. Their argument that the Insurgence created wider space for the marginalised to put forward their grievances is wrong. Many of the grievances are unreal and perceived. FOr example take the Question of ethnicity. Who is ethni anc who is not in Nepal is debated and unsettled. Those with louder and more organised voice can easily prove themselves more ethnic and can extarct more concessions from the state in NEpal. No study of historical facts is necessary as long as you can flex muslce in the street, impose strikes and create fear among the people.

    2. madhes Andolan was not the result of Maoist insurgency. It was a deliberate attempt to overplay the rhetoric of grievance so that the maoist onslaught could be stopped. NC and UML, the traditional large parties had lost a lot of ground and a thrid more rebellion force was necessary to Maoist Jagaurnaut who otherwise could capture the state by force. So the madhesi uprising was ceated. Its uitlity has no been over and the Madhesi parties have also disappeared form the scene, means their capacity has drastically eroded.

    3. MAoist use of democratci sapce is only tactical. Read the official documents. They are in faovur of the dictatotship of proletariat. They want to use the democratic environment to consolidate their power towards dictatorship.

  • Mohanraj Adhikari

    The opening sentence is partially true. Maoists have not radically transformed into a key democratising force. They never had. They didn’t, and even now don’t believe in democracy.Prachanda had mentioned this time and again, they didn’t even believe that the first constitution elction will take place. The videos are widely available in YouTube. The only thing that was transformed was they gave up their arms and stopped the guerrilla warfare. (and there are reasons why they did this)

    I am not sure about the Maoists original aim of uprooting feudalism but uprooting monarchy came into their agenda much later on. Baburam was publishing articles in leading journals on the possibility of working together with then King Birendra.

    It can still be contended on whether conflict was successful in providing marginalised populations a political space to articulate their grievances. And whether the monarchy was the real problem of economic underdevelopment and social oppression in Nepal is another area of research. Madhesi movement was fuelled by maoist to support intensify their demand of ethnic based federal system. And despite winning 220 out of 575 seats maoist representation in the constitution assembly was never like a leading party but like an opposition, which failed to prepare the constitution within the stipulated timeframe even after extension. The role of maoist together with other political partys in dissolution of constitution assembly needs to be explored.

    Maoist ideology and democratic ideologies don’t go together. They were against independent judiciary and prachanda deliberately proposed to make Khil Raj the prime minister without resigning from his chief justice position was an attempt to establish that judiciary need not be independent. Prachanda has always shown characterstics of an absolute dictator. In the party he has hold the chairman post since time immemorial he has not resigned after his party lost elections, he has not conducted the party general assembly and is not running his party with democratic principles. There is no way that we can see that maoist party has embraced democratic values and norms. They still say “whatever we say is correct”.

    During field visits and talking with people in different corners of Nepal, it is evident that, fear factor and hatred was the number 1 factor that led people to support the Maoists in the past. It was not the Maoist’s strategies that succeded, but failure of the then state and the governments during the time of conflict to divert the people’s sentiment to maoist during the first election.

    • Surya Sharma

      I couldn’t resist myself not to comment on some of the points Mohanraj Adhikari has raised in his comments.

      1. Maoists and democracy: Three rounds of peace talks during People’s War failed just because the then ruling parties inlcluding Nepali Congress and CPN (UML)which are regarded as democratic forces were not ready for constitutional assembly election (the most democratic process of constitution making), and they had to fight for the next few years for the same. Later, Maoists had proposed presidential system similar to that of USA in the last constitutional assembly – isn’t it a democratic system? does democracy only mean a parliamentary syestm which witnessed 22 governments in the last 21 years?

      2. Maoists’ role in uprooting monarchy: I don’t know how one can suspect Maoists’ lead role in uprooting monarchy. Anyone knows NC and UML, the major players of the era of constitutional monarchy, had given up their stance on monarchy when they were bypassed by King Gyanendra and Maoists put “giving up monarchy” as the main condition for collaboration in fighting against the King. I have also read the popular article by Baburam Bhattarai about the “invisible or undeclared collaboration” with the king Birendra that gives no sense of their relation with the Monarchy or the King.

      3.Maoists and marginalised population: Mohanraj has suspected whether People’s War created political space for marginalised. The data given by the authors in this article are sufficient not to suspect this. Moreover, anyone who has visited any rural areas before and after conflict can easily realise the changed relationship between elite and marginalised (from dominant-dominated towards equal). Whether this change is good rests on one’s view – this may relate to Mohanraj’s suspiscion “whether the monarchy [the root of feudalism] was the real problem of economic underdevelopment and social oppression in Nepal”.

      4. Mohanraj interestingly claims “During field visits and talking with people in different corners of Nepal,it is evident that, fear factor and hatred was the number 1 factor that led people to support the Maoists in the past” – I don’t know which different corners he visited and which people he talked to. I have resided and visited many rural areas of the country before, during and after People’s war- and I absulutely nullify his claim.