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Bhattarai new tourism minister; NCP power struggles continue

Yogesh Bhattarai, one of the ruling Nepal Communist Party’s most dynamic leaders, is the new Minister for Culture Tourism and Civil Aviation. The cabinet position had been vacant since Rabindra Adhikari, the minister, died in a chopper crash in Taplejung on February 27 at the age of 49.

“I am proud to say I am Rabindra Adhikari’s successor,” Bhattarai told media after being sworn in by President Bidhya Devi Bhandari on August 1. He said that he would work for the betterment of the country’s tourism and aviation sector while furthering Adhikari’s reform initiatives, including addressing air safety regulations, overhauling the management of Nepal Airlines Corporation and reviving domestic airport projects in the pipeline. Like Adhikari, Bhattarai too got his start in student politics.

Bhattarai, seen by some as a future leader of his party, needs to make his mark in his first cabinet position. His immediate challenges are to push progress on the international airports in Pokhara and Bhairahwa, both of which are running far behind schedule, to lay the groundwork for the construction of Nijgadh International, a flagship project for this government, and to ensure success for the ambitious Visit Nepal 2020 project, which aims to bring two million tourists to Nepal.

Bhattarai was widely seen as an ideal candidate for the post, but his appointment was by no means certain, given his tilt towards the party faction of former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, which has been increasingly critical of the performance of the KP Oli-led government. Analysts say the prime minister has played his cards well in light of the leadership struggles in the party. Since it was formed through the merger of the former UML and Maoist parties, the NCP has struggled to create new structures and to allocate responsibilities, and to agree on the principles for appointments. With both chairmen, PM Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”, being relatively equally matched, Nepal, as the third power centre in the party, is emerging as a decisive player. By accommodating his faction, the prime minister thus buys himself some room for maneuver.

Opposition protests against civil liberties clampdown

Leader of the main opposition Nepali Congress, Sher Bahadur Deuba, urged his fellow leaders and party cadres to be ready to launch a mass protest if the government did not stop its attack on civil liberties. Deuba accused Prime Minister Oli of disregarding democratic norms and values at a program on Saturday, saying, “Prime Minister KP Oli is becoming a dictator by trying to consolidate power.” The opposition says the government’s proposed bill to regulate media and social media as an attempt to curtail freedom of expression.

The Nepali Congress and Rastriya Janata Party Nepal last month said they would jointly struggle against the government, and have since obstructed parliament demanding a parliamentary probe into the alleged extrajudicial killing of Saroj Narayan Singh, a Sarlahi local, and Kumar Poudel, Sarlahi district in-charge of the Netra Bikram Chand-led splinter Maoist party, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN).

Proud to be dragged to The Hague: Prachanda

Former Maoist leader and joint chairman of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” said last week that he would become a global hero if he were taken to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes. Prachanda has long denounced those campaigning for transitional justice for the decade-long conflict between the Nepali state and guerrillas of the then Maoist party that ended after a decade with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006. 

Prachanda said that ”regressive and revisionist forces” unhappy with the political changes wrought by conflict were acting on a grand design to subvert historical achievements. [Former Maoists typically list the abolition of the monarchy, secularism and inclusion as the positive outcomes of the conflict and the multiparty and civil society-led People’s Movement of 2006.] “You might have seen some people writer that Prachanda would be taken to The Hague, that he would be hanged. Earlier today in the morning I [read] a long piece saying I should be hanged for killing 13,000 people, destroying schools and temples,” Prachanda told a group of new entrants in the party on 29 July. “It doesn’t matter to me … I will emerge a world hero. The entire world will know me. Citizens across the world will know that I am for justice, for revolution. That would be a moment of pride for me. But I don’t think they will take me there, and let me be a hero,” he said.

Prachanda has reportedly cancelled numerous overseas visits for fear of being arrested under the universal jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Former Nepal Army Colonel Kumar Lama was arrested in the United Kingdom in 2013 and stood trial for torture and war crimes; he was acquitted for lack of evidence in 2016. 

International and domestic pressure has been mounting on the government to address the unfulfilled parts of the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, in particular the commitments t0 truth and reconciliation. This pressure is in the face of what some commentators have described as a tacit consensus between all political parties and security forces not to address these issues. Also on 29 July, four international rights groups — Human Rights Watch, Trail International, the International Commission of Jurists and Amnesty International — issued a joint statement calling on the government to ensure a strong legal foundation to allow the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Person and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to fulfill their mandate inconsistent to the international human rights standards and Supreme Court ruling.

By-elections on November 30

After consultations with 18 political parties, the Election Commission (EC) announced by-elections on November 30 for vacant 50 positions at the federal, provincial and local levels, said spokesman Gokul Prasad Baskota on 4 August. At a meeting on 1 August, most parties advised the EC to pick a single polling date for elections at all three levels.There is particular interest in the Kaski-3 federal assembly seat held by late Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari who died in a helicopter accident in Taplejung earlier this year, and three vacant seats in provincial assemblies.

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