FOR more than two decades, Nepal, a resource-rich, impoverished country wedged between China and India, has teetered between paralysis and upheaval. Its people have witnessed the transition, in 1990, from an authoritarian Hindu kingdom to a constitutional monarchy; the massacre of members of the royal family in 2001 by the heir to the throne; a decade-long civil war between Maoist insurgents and the government that ended in a faltering peace agreement in 2006; and the removal of the monarchy altogether in 2008.
Since the civil war ended, after the loss of more than 16,000 lives, a stalemate has ensued as each party caters to caste, class and ethnic divisions instead of national unity. Many politicians are maneuvering to get their hands on money from foreign aid, tourism and hydropower; even the Maoists have become crony capitalists, reaping large profits for themselves and their ostensibly proletarian party. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy, army and police — historically dominated by privileged social groups that never held them accountable — are becoming even more politicized and corrupt.
Although Nepal is no stranger to crises, the one currently seizing the country risks turning it into a failed state. On May 27, the 601-member legislature, which had been directed to write a new constitution for what is now a democratic republic, missed its deadline for the fourth time since it was created in 2008. Hours before the deadline, after the Supreme Court refused to grant another extension, the Maoist prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai, dissolved the legislature, known as the Constituent Assembly, and scheduled nationwide elections for Nov. 22. Although averting imminent political disaster and violence, the call for elections is unlikely to bring consensus among the self-interested and fractious political leaders, and is quite likely to produce an even more divided legislature.
The fitful struggle to develop a constitution both epitomizes and exacerbates the country’s ethnic, religious, geographical, caste and class divisions. More than 90 languages are spoken in this country, about the size of Illinois. Buddhists and Muslims are sizable minorities among the largely Hindu population. Lower-caste people and rural residents have been historically marginalized; the grievances run deep. However, instead of unifying the country, constitution-drafting has become a frenzied contest to secure special privileges for one’s own community.
By making promises they can’t fulfill, politicians are losing control of the very animosities they’ve whipped up. Political parties have organized paralyzing protests, with barricades and roadblocks, to demand, or oppose, separate ethnic- and caste-based states within a federal system. The protests have shut down commercial activity across a country that can ill afford such losses: with a per-capita gross domestic product of $490, Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world; unemployment is at 45 percent.
The parties are using criminal groups to recruit stick-wielding youths to protest. Induced by a fistful of rupees, a rare treat of a meat meal and an illusion of empowerment, these youth have roughed up drivers and set fire to vehicles that attempt to pass the barriers. Some groups have attacked journalists. Reinforced by former fighters, the Maoist party is among the most effective in demonstrating its street might. Fearing a loss of power, the traditional economic and political elite, the Brahmin and Chhetri castes, who dominate the Nepali Congress Party, have begun to emulate the Maoists’ street tactics.
On Monday, in a move symptomatic of the mistrust and cynicism, dozens of political parties, including the Nepali Congress, raised suspicions about the Maoists’ motives in dissolving the Constituent Assembly and called for protests against its dissolution. Few Nepalis expect the present situation to explode into another civil war, but increasingly brazen and regular acts of violence in the capital demonstrate that lawlessness has reached crisis proportions.
With most institutions malfunctioning and the system of patronage deeply ingrained, bribery and political connections rule the day. Individual acts of courage against corruption are cause for hope, but to fully restore the rule of law, and respect for it, Nepal needs to step up its efforts to improve public integrity. A prominent anti-corruption agency has been leaderless for over a year as parties bicker over who should lead it.
Nepal also needs a stronger judiciary selected on the basis of merit; rigorous training for prosecutors and justices; and a police force that can regain the trust of ordinary citizens, particularly in rural communities, where law enforcement is scarce.
The global community can show its concern by threatening to withhold aid, which makes up 3.4 percent of Nepal’s economy. Donors should insist that the new constitution be completed, emphasizing the need for compromise, particularly in the debates around ethnic representation and federalism.
Even after the November elections, political leaders will need to put stability and justice ahead of power and profit. If the culture of impunity is not uprooted, neither the elections nor a new constitution can deliver Nepal from slipping further into civil chaos, poverty and lawlessness.
Seyom Brown is a professor of international politics and national security at Southern Methodist University. Vanda Felbab-Brown is a fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.