Sunday, August 17, 2008

Old Revolutionaries Die Hard (Sometimes)

Prachanda's the guy on the right

With all the news seemingly centred on Georgia and China this past week, an interesting story has slid by almost unnoticed by the world. Oh yeah, and it has a hammer and sickle involved. In tiny mountainous Nepal, former Maoist guerrilla leader Prachanda was sworn in as that countries Prime Minister just two years after laying down his arms. In true revolutionary form, Pushpa Kamal Dahal still uses his "nom de guerre", Prachanda, meaning the fierce one, easily won 464 votes out of 577 ballots cast in a special Constituent Assembly vote. This after leading a decade long insurgency against the Hindu monarchy that saw the deaths of at least 13,000 people.

The question remains if he can complete the transformation from rebel ideologue to successful political leader, however, there are many precedents that say it's possible. From George Washington to Daniel Ortega and all points in between, many revolutionary leaders have become successful politicians. Lest we forget, Ortega was the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the group that helped overthrow dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. His first term in office as president of Nicaragua was from '85 to '90. He initiated land reforms in an attempt at wealth redistribution and had to deal with the American backed Contra rebels. This brings to mind another thorn in the US' side, good ol' Fidel. It was Castro's birthday just the other day (August 13th), and although no longer technically in power, it was a long, interesting ride. From the Bay of Pigs, through the Cuban Missile Crisis, he proved that he could keep his country going , for better or worse, despite the efforts of the world's superpower just 90 miles away.

Other successful examples abound, Lech Walesa in Poland went from union leader on the docks of Gdansk to the first directly elected president of his country after the fall of Communism. Speaking of which, of course there were Lenin and the rest in the USSR and Mao Zedong in China. Regardless of which side of the political fence one sits, most everybody would agree that the best example of freedom fighter turned political leader is Nelson Mandela, like Walesa, a Nobel Peace prize winner. Not only did he lead his people to victory in one of the most important struggles of the 20th century, he knew when to step aside and let others lead, something many of this ilk have never figured out. Robert Mugabe would be the most glaring example of this type and some would argue that Hugo Chavez should take some lessons on when to move aside from his hero Simon Bolivar.

I know I've left many important figures out, the list could go on forever, Kenyatta, Begin, Shamir, Qadhafi, Carransa, Arafat..., but back in Nepal the changes have already begun and huge challenges remain. In April the Maoist party won elections but failed to secure a majority and therefore had to negotiate with other parties to secure the backing of the 464 out of the 577 ballots cast in the special Constituent Assembly. The same Assembly voted to abolish the 239-year-old monarchy in May, declaring the nation the world's newest republic. However, the Nepali Congress, which ruled Nepal for much of the past 18 years and the second largest party in the assembly, have refused to join the Maoists in government. The former guerrilla Maoists are also on the US list of terrorist organizations which isn't surprising as Prachanda was inspired by Peru's Shining Path along with chairman Mao. The promised land reform in a nation where 80% of the population depend on farming for a living will be difficult in one of the world's poorest countries already dealing with soaring food and fuel prices. The trickiest problem will be the integration of the 20,000 rebel fighters with the national army. In addition, they have two years to draft a new constitution. An uphill battle to be sure, but I think the true test of a revolutionary turned political leader is the ability to form compromises with former enemies, something he's already done forming alliances with other parties. He has also insisted that Maoists are not "dogmatic communists" and that globalisation and free markets are facts of life, hello China. Finally, and prematurely in this case, a true revolutionary must know when to step aside, something many never learn as they cling to their ideological beliefs and battlefield mentality, hello Mugabe, Musharaf...

...We leave victorious...because we Sandinistas have spilled blood and sweat not to cling to government posts, but to bring Latin America a little dignity, a little social justice. - Daniel Ortega

(Note: Yes, I realize Ortega went back into politics, and yes he's been accused of some nasty stuff)