Democracy Lab

Now the Social Revolution Can Begin

The end of Nepal's bloody civil war was supposed to bring freedom to the downtrodden. But democracy actually makes some things more complicated.

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Even by South Asian standards, it's hard to overstate how much of a political basket case Nepal has been over the years. Since a degree of democracy was introduced in 1990, it has suffered a brutal Maoist insurgency, the massacre of most of its royal family, a return to absolute rule, the abolition of the monarchy, and the collapse of every single elected government.

Yet for all the disastrous instability over the past decade and a half, Nepal has also experienced major historical change. Political power has gradually been passed down to its most oppressed castes and ethnicities. The country's successful national election this week (Nov. 19) brings glimmers of hope for one of South Asia's poorest nations.

In 2006, the country's decade-long civil war -- in which Maoist insurgents vied to topple the Nepalese monarchy, leaving an estimated 13,000 people dead -- finally came to a conclusion. Within two years of the peace agreement that ended this brutal conflict, the Maoist rebels could proclaim that their key objectives had been achieved: the 240-year-old monarchy was abolished, replaced by a democratic republic, and their party had confounded expectations with a resounding election victory.

Sadly, Nepal's politics has hardly been a paragon of stability and enlightened leadership since then. There have been five different governments in as many years, and the leading parties continue to squabble over the drafting of a new constitution. From 2010 to 2011, parliament held 17 in-house elections in an attempt to select a prime minister. In another instance, its members wasted over three months deciding which flag to adopt; weeks more were wasted in choosing the national bird, animal, and flower. In the meantime, almost nothing was done to improve on the grinding poverty faced by most of Nepal's 27 million citizens.

The euphoria that accompanied the end of the war and the fall of the much-despised King Gyanendra created the false impression that radical change had already come. Gyanendra's disastrous handling of the war, his repression of civil rights groups, and his attempt to impose absolute rule allowed the rebels and mainstream parties to make common cause against him. Things might have been different if it hadn't been for the crown prince that machine-gunned most of his own family to death in 2001. His bizarre and still unexplained drunken rampage eliminated the more popular and sensible members of the royal family.

But the abolition of the monarchy was only the beginning of real change in Nepalese society. Nepali politics had long been dominated by a small selection of upper castes, mostly from Kathmandu, while a bewildering spectrum of castes and ethnic groups -- nearly 100 of them -- were systematically shut out of power. The end of the war and the advent of true democracy finally allowed these groups to burst onto the political stage: 120 parties -- many of them based around caste and ethnicity -- took part in a lively contest before the Nov. 19th general election.

It will be a long and fraught process to overturn centuries of discrimination. Take, for example, an ethnic group called the Madhesi who live in the southern Terai plains. Despite making up around 35 percent of Nepal's population, their supposed "Indian-ness" means they have rarely been included in state institutions. Every single chief district officer (the most powerful government representative at regional level) has been sent down from the hill areas; not one is ethnically Madhesi. Only five or six Madhesi have ever made it into the officer ranks of the Nepalese Army.

The situation is even worse for low-caste Hindus, such as the Dalits. Still considered "untouchable" in many areas, they are often subject to debt bondage and prevented from entering temples and schools or drinking from the same taps as higher castes.

It was from groups such as these that the Maoists were able to recruit for their insurgency, creating a political awakening that cannot now be undone. Indeed, this social revolution has outgrown even the Maoists' intentions. At the end of the civil war, a powerful and occasionally violent Madhesi civil rights movement burst into life, and continues to grow in influence. The group could trigger its own insurgency if Madhesis remain excluded from institutions for much longer.

The pressure valve for these tensions has been the promise of federalism which would restructure the country into a series of provinces and devolve power to them in such a way that marginalized groups gain a real stake in governance. The Maoists have sided with a broad range of ethnic- and caste-based parties to push this agenda, but it has been strongly resisted by conservative parties that have traditionally dominated Kathmandu politics. The two main conservative parties are the Nepali Congress, the leading force for democracy over the decades but dominated by upper castes, and the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML) who, despite their name, are far from progressive.

The conservatives argue that federalizing the country in the way proposed by the Maoists and their allies will lead to balkanization. With so many communities jumbled together around the country, they argue, it will be impossible to create provinces that boost one ethnic group without marginalizing many others. But many see their centralizing alternatives as thinly veiled attempts to maintain the grip of upper-caste elites in Kathmandu.

It is this disagreement over federalism that has delayed the completion of the constitution. Last year, Nepal's Parliament missed their final drafting deadline, forcing an 18-month hiatus as parties bickered over how to hold elections without a constitution. The general election held this week finally marks the beginning of the end of that long-drawn-out process. Once the votes are tallied, there will be a new Constituent Assembly, which will hopefully finish the job. Given the lack of opinion polls, it has been impossible to make firm predictions ahead of the counting, which will take many days. But since every party on the ballot has promised that the constitution will be completed within a year, the future looks bright.

The potential spoiler in all this has been a hardline faction of the Maoists, the Dashists, which split off from the parent party in June 2012, taking around a third of the party's cadres with them. The slow progress on the constitution had left many former rebels disillusioned with the democratic process. They were also unimpressed with the Maoist leadership's increasingly bourgeois lifestyle. Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (known by his nom de guerre "Prachanda," or "The Fierce One") has become infamous for his love of Rolex watches and the 15-room mansion he rents in Kathmandu. This lavish lifestyle only exacerbated the sense that the Maoist party's revolutionary ideals -- for which the insurgents had sacrificed so much -- were being compromised by its leadership's cooperation with the conservative parties.

The hardliner splinter group did its best to derail this week's election, staging a crippling transport strike (known as a "banda") in the 10 days leading up to the poll. Voters were threatened, bombs planted at polling stations, buses and taxi drivers attacked -- all in a bid to show their strength and to intimidate voters into staying home. But speaking to Foreign Policy last week, one of the Dashists' senior leaders, Dev Gurung, struggled to give a convincing reason for their election boycott. He evoked technical issues, accusing the mainstream parties of "abusing the rule of law and principle of separation of powers" by appointing the chief justice of the Supreme Court to oversee the elections -- a little rich coming from a party that throws petrol bombs at buses. "We have not directed any of our cadres to carry out violence," he said, even less convincingly. One Western diplomat put it succinctly: "They dignify this stuff with the name ‘guerrilla tactics,' but it's just terrorism."

In the end, the banda mustered little popular support, and in particular failed to win over the transport industry's laborers, who urgently depend on their meager daily wages. Voting day, by contrast, turned out to be a resounding success, with early calculations pointing to a turnout of over 70 percent. It is clear that voters are tired of militancy and see their ballots as the best way to press their case for a better life. Regardless of the eventual results, the violence-free poll on Nov. 19 marked a major step forward for democracy in Nepal.

The challenge now, beyond the furious horse-trading required to build a governing coalition, will be figuring out a way to deal with these hardliners, perhaps by offering them an informal seat in the constitution talks to prevent them from veering into more concerted guerrilla violence.

But all the major steps so far -- from removing the monarchy to drafting the constitution -- are rather cosmetic compared with the deeper social forces that have been unleashed in the process. As in India, democracy is providing a voice to downtrodden ethnicities and castes for the first time in history, with implications that will be as profound as they are unpredictable. A constitution that truly respects the rights of all Nepalese citizens holds out the promise of overturning centuries of crushing social hierarchy. Ironing out its details will be a long and fractious process, but it seems clear that for this Himalayan nation, the insurgency is over, and the social revolution can begin.



Doctor's Orders

How a neurosurgeon from Maryland cleaned up one of the most notoriously violent cities in Iraq.

KIRKUK, Iraq — When I traveled to Kirkuk in years past, this northern city was a byword for ethnic violence and the deep-seated animosities that were in the process of unraveling Iraq.

Under Saddam Hussein, the city and surrounding rural areas were brutalized in a massive social engineering program termed "Arabization," which resulted in the ethnic cleansing of Kurds and Turkmen to make way for Arab settlers. Since Saddam's fall, the Kurds have gained the upper hand -- but continue to face relentless resistance from Arab diehards. In the last six months, for instance, al Qaeda operatives have hit Kirkuk with an astounding 22 car bombs and four attacks by terrorists wearing suicide vests. That's a remarkably high figure for a city of less than half a million souls, putting it in the same league as insurgent hotbeds like Fallujah and Mosul.  

But I had heard something was changing in Kirkuk, and wanted to see for myself. On Oct. 27, I traveled to the city and got an inside look at the government's operations under its dynamic governor, Najmaldin Karim, a neurosurgeon who lived for over three decades in Silver Spring, Maryland. Upon my departure from the city, I experienced a most unusual sensation -- optimism for Iraq. The progress I could see was subtle but unmistakable: Car bombings have begun to decline, and projects to construct new roads, bridges, and sewage networks are gathering pace. New parks, a key sign of communal pride and public life, are beginning to grow green.

The average citizen in Kirkuk lives life on two levels. On one level, he or she is just trying to get along, make a living, and keep their families safe. But at another level, each major ethnic group can point to communal trauma inflicted by the region's violent past. For example, Turkmen and Kurds dominated Kirkuk in the decades before the oil industry rose in the 1920s -- but were later oppressed by successive Arab-led governments in Baghdad, who evicted them from their properties to make way for Shiite and Sunni Arab settlers. Following Saddam's fall and a mass return of displaced persons, the Kurds now make up the majority of the provincial council, dominate the security forces in Kirkuk, and set the political agenda for the province.

The effects of settlement and resettlement have now created an ethnic knot that is almost impossible to unravel. Kirkuk is essentially the site of the world's most exquisitely intractable land dispute: Kurdish refugees, for instance, squat in government buildings that were built on demolished houses taken by Saddam from Turkmen town-dwellers. Meanwhile, young Arabs who were born and grew up in Kirkuk -- and who knows nothing but life as residents of the city -- fear the loss of their residency because their parents came as settlers under Saddam Hussein.

The struggle for power between the central government in Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also reverberates across Kirkuk. Both Baghdad and the KRG, which controls the areas right up to the northern suburbs of Kirkuk city, lay claim to the Kurdish-controlled areas. The conflict has prompted tense military stand-offs and frozen in limbo the question of whether the city falls under the control of the KRG or the central government.

For a long time, these challenges seemed insurmountable. Slowly but surely, however, Kirkuk's administrators have reestablished a degree of normalcy -- even prosperity -- to their corner of Iraq.

Much of the credit should go to Karim, who was sworn in as Kirkuk's governor in April 2011. The governor, a native of Kirkuk and a Kurd, has a long history of political involvement in the region: After completing his medical studies in Mosul, he joined the peshmerga, the Kurdish paramilitary fighters, and participated in the anti-Saddam insurgency throughout the early 1970s. When that struggle collapsed, he traveled to the United States in 1975 as the personal physician for the Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, the father of current KRG President Massoud Barzani. While in the United States, Karim served the Kurdish exile community as the head of the Washington Kurdish Institute, and also ran a successful medical practice as a neurosurgeon in Maryland for over 30 years.

In 2010, Karim returned to Iraq and won a seat in parliament, but soon grew frustrated by the deadlock at the national legislature. He refocused on local politics in his native Kirkuk, where the Kurdish-majority provincial council appointed him to fill a void in the province's leadership. Though a card-carrying member of one of the Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Karim stands in good stead with the Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, due to his service to Barzani's father.

Since returning to serve Kirkuk, Karim has shaken up the local government -- and ruffled more than a few feathers in the process. The governor is all business, and can seem gruff at first glance. After decades running a busy medical practice in the West, he is impatient with the red tape that strangles governance in today's Iraq. But in local government meetings and in visits around the city, the governor appeared to be winning the respect and affection of Kirkuk residents.

As I shadowed Karim as he went about his daily routine, I could see why. While governors often act as a crippling bottleneck on local development in this country, Karim's office was efficient: Every morning, he turns to an enormous ledger of authorizations and letters to dispatch, then holds disciplined roundtables with key municipal leaders. The afternoons and evenings, meanwhile, are reserved for a more traditional ad hoc agenda of personal meetings.

One of Karim's key challenges is that Kirkuk's disputed status makes it something of a political orphan. Neither Baghdad nor the KRG want to invest heavily in the province, in case it reverts to the other in the future. As one frustrated provincial council member put it: "To them both, we are another country."

Though a Kurdish politician through and through, Karim has tried to remove Kirkuk from these ethnic battles -- sometimes clashing with the KRG in the process. Though some of Kirkuk's electricity and security assistance are provided by the KRG, the provincial government gets 95 percent of its budget from Baghdad. This affects Kirkuk's attitude to the federal government: For instance, Karim showed all due deference to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki when he made a surprise visit to Kirkuk in May 2012. On Nov. 6, the governor welcomed to Kirkuk the BP CEO Bob Dudley and the federal minister of oil -- a move that the KRG criticized on the grounds that Kirkuk is a disputed area, and that the KRG should be consulted on any oil deals.

At other times, the governor has pushed back against Baghdad. He strongly resisted Baghdad's attempt to take over security in Kirkuk by establishing the controversial Tigris Operations Center, a new headquarters led by an unapologetic Saddam-era general with a history of needling the Kurds in Kirkuk. Karim also requested that the KRG place Kurdish peshmerga forces under the provincial council's command to secure the city's southern flank and commissioned an anti-car bomb trench to funnel vehicle traffic to new checkpoints. Car bombings launched from the Arab farm belt are now reducing from weekly to monthly occurrences. Roadside bombs have declined in frequency and lethality, while rocket attacks have gone from a regular event to a rare nuisance.

Second only to security improvements, the governor's focus is winning the uphill battle to spend Kirkuk's investment budget. The federal treasury in Baghdad provided Kirkuk with around $763 million in 2013 -- buoyed by a "petrodollar" scheme that provides the province with $1 per barrel of oil produced or refined, and $1 per 150 cubic meters of gas processed. This figure is likely to increase fivefold next year under new provincial powers legislation.

Though the petrodollars only arrived from Baghdad in June, Kirkuk had already spent $430 million by late October or 54 percent of its total budget in just five months. Further spending is also in the works before the end of 2013. By Iraqi standards, just managing to execute the budget is a remarkable achievement: In 2012, Kirkuk spent 88 percent of its budget, while the governor's office in the southern province of Basra spent 35 percent -- and had to send the unspent funds back to Baghdad.

The trick, local officials related, is preparation of procurement plans before time and streamlined tendering -- vital factors that are lacking in much of Iraq. To ensure the money is well spent, the governor's office performs basic due diligence on contractors, and gives them trial runs to assess whether they can deliver. If they succeed, they get used again; if they underperform or inflate the price of their work, they get blacklisted.

Corruption and misuse of public funds also appear to have been kept at a minimum. A Facebook site has been set up by the governor's staff to receive feedback on projects from the general public. Through the site, citizens have alerted the governor's office to shoddy workmanship in some local projects and explained the needs of their individual neighborhoods. It's an example of how new media has helped close the gap between provincial leadership and their constituents.

In the near future, as Kirkuk's petrodollars rise from hundreds of millions to billions, these basic measures must give way to true institutional capacity-building. The governor's office will need to be able to tender and award mega-projects and ensure that oil money doesn't encourage large-scale corruption. But for now, Kirkuk's budget management is far ahead of most other Iraqi provinces.

There's no denying Kirkuk still has a long way to go to achieve basic security and prosperity. But for the first time in a long time, there may just be a light at the end of the tunnel. Terrorist attacks are becoming less destructive, though the raw numbers of attacks in Kirkuk city remains largely unchanged at roughly 24 per month. Economic reconstruction also has a long road ahead: The bones of the city -- water, sewage system, electrical supply, and roads -- need to be painstakingly rebuilt after a half-century of neglect. Booming oil revenues, however, could give Karim a chance to do just that.

In late October, I left Kirkuk in the pre-dawn dimness and found myself in Dubai by the afternoon. The contrast between Kirkuk's downtrodden shabbiness and the bustling Gulf emirate was stark -- though less extreme than it would have been just a few years ago. Some of Kirkuk's brand-new thoroughfares and spaghetti junctions recall the early threadbare days of Dubai's rise as a metropolis. Billions of dollars are coming in to Kirkuk in the near future, and there is growing hope that the provincial leadership can spend them wisely. In Iraq, hope is arguably at least as valuable a commodity as oil -- and much rarer.

In this visit, I saw a glimpse of the potential inherent in Kirkuk and perhaps in the whole of Iraq. An idea -- loyalty to Kirkuk and all her people -- is resulting in progress, thanks to the combination of effective leadership and oil wealth. If this can continue in fractured Kirkuk, might not the same formula work one day in Iraq writ-large? That may be optimistic, but it's certainly not impossible.

Michael Knights