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Nepal: Now for the hard part

Many challenges face nation trying to move away from conflict

By Rhoderick Chalmers
For CNN

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(CNN) -- "After the tedium of strikes and curfew-fever, come and relax by our infinity pool, feast on fresh organic food and enjoy fantastic walks in the peaceful rural hills."

So runs the invitation from a luxury resort sent out to Kathmandu-based expatriates just a day after King Gyanendra's offer to hand over power ended a three-week long mass movement for democracy. Many diplomats and aid-workers will be tempted by the offer.

The international media attention that the protests generated has already died down. The simple message is: democracy restored, peace on its way.

But Nepal is not back to normal. Far from it.

The king's televised climbdown marks only the first step on a long and tough road toward peace and stability.

Friday, April 26, will see the first sitting of Parliament since it was dissolved in May 2002. Representatives should be able to reach consensus on a cabinet -- under the leadership of veteran Nepali Congress head Girija Prasad Koirala -- without much difficulty.

There the easy part ends. The new government will face urgent tasks on three fronts, each fraught with difficulties.

The overriding policy priority is a peace process to end the civil war that has killed some 13,000 people during the past decade. That means sticking to the agreement the parties made with the Maoists in November 2005 and persuading them to come on board with a persuasive plan for disarmament in advance of elections to a constituent assembly.

The building of trust would best begin with a mutual cease-fire. The Maoists have announced a unilateral three-month truce and the new Parliament will surely reciprocate. Making a cease-fire work will require credible monitoring, probably with an international component. Then the hard negotiations over the collection and decommissioning of arms will start.

The Maoists will almost certainly sign up to the overall process (their other options are unattractive) but will be pushing to join an interim government before they disarm -- something that the parties and the world at large will not permit.

Secondly, to ensure a peace process will not be derailed by rearguard royalist intervention, the new government will need to translate the king's stated handover of power into reality. Gyanendra was forced to admit defeat in the face of an overwhelming popular uprising. But he, and more importantly the elite that depend on the palace, will not give up political power so readily.

They made a major strategic blunder with the royal coup in February 2005, but now they will go back to playing the games they know best: exploiting the parties' internal divisions and weaknesses, using the powerful palace secretariat to keep tabs on the civil service and, most crucially, continuing to cultivate the army as their most loyal supporters.

Unless the new government can neutralize these levers it will be undermined from the start.

Challenges for constitutional change

Thirdly, there will be significant challenges in effecting constitutional change. The parties' and Maoists' joint road map for a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution has already gathered significant popular support. But such processes are contentious at the best of times, and in this case no one has started sketching the plan out in detail.

How will the assembly be elected? The first-past-the-post parliamentary system is already a controversial issue in itself, but a proportional representation system would bring its own problems.

Will there be any preconditions? The Maoists are worried that the inherently conservative mainstream party leaders will try to ringfence a ceremonial role for the monarchy.

And can there be a free and fair election at all? As long as the Maoists continue to hold sway over vast tracts of the country, there cannot be an open campaign and a real freedom of choice at the ballot box.

Alongside these headline political priorities, managing relations with the international community will be tricky. Major players will continue to pressure the new government, publicly and privately, on issues such as the preservation of the monarchy and rearming the army.

There will also be a flood of offers to increase development and peace-building aid. There is a real danger that premature and uncoordinated international assistance could backfire. Especially if donors give in to the urge to imagine that all is back to normal rather than remembering that this is only an interim government walking a tightrope in precarious circumstances.

Still, there is one cause for optimism. Nepal's people have proved that they can speak decisively when they choose to. They forced the king to give in, but they have not unconditionally endorsed the prospective seven-party government. They have sent strong messages that they will not tolerate the corruption and infighting that characterized past administrations.

Under their watchful eye -- and with others waiting for them to fail -- the parties know they have to get it right this time.

The writer is Deputy South Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group. His views do not necessarily reflect those of CNN.

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