Author: DR.ABDUL RUFF Colachal
Analyst, Research, & Commetator, Delhi
Nepal’s Maoist party has taken a commanding lead in a landmark election in thus far known as a Himalayan Kingdom held on April 10 to begin the process of electing a total of 601 representatives to the constituent assembly that is expected to revise Nepal’s constitution and abolish its 240-year-old monarchy. Results for the 240 constituencies chosen by the first-past-the-post system are expected over the next 10 days, although another 335 seats to be elected by proportional representation are not expected to be decided for several weeks. The interim government is to appoint the remaining 26 seats. Around 17.6 million people are eligible to vote and there was a turnout of 60%, with polling cancelled due to malpractice in just 33 polling stations out of 21,000.
As a surprise, the Maoists have won more seats than other parties already declared. The next largest party, the Nepali Congress, is trailing far behind with just 21 seats. The final result of the polls, Nepal’s first in nine years, could take around 10 days. Outcome of the poll in Southern Nepal, yet to be declared, would finally decide the fate of the parliament. Nepal held its first polls since 1999 following the Maoists’ decision to quit their armed struggle in 2006 after a ceasefire agreed between the government and Maoist rebels.
Initially, many analysts doubted if the polls postponed twice, would be held at all. Though 74 parties have been registered with the election commission, of which more than 13 owe their allegiance to some shade of Marxism-Leninism, the main contestants remain Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, Nepali Congress Party, Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist, Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), Rashtriya Janshakti Party (RJP), Nepal Sadbhavna Party-Anandi Devi (NSP-A), People’s Front Nepal, United Left Front, and Madheshi Janadhikar Forum.
It was hoped the election would consolidate the end of the Maoist insurgency, which stopped two years ago. The run-up to the polls has been marred by violence that has claimed eight lives and prompted international calls for calm. Explosions in “separatist” strongholds in the country’s south and clashes between rival gangs have fueled tensions. EU electoral observers and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have been among those expressing concern. The verdict of the people of Nepal should be supreme and needs to be supported.
Despite reports of minor incidents, observers say voting so far appears to have been orderly, and there are indications of a high turnout. Some of those killed in the run-up to the polls were Maoist workers shot by the security forces. At least six Maoist activists in Nepal have been shot dead by the security forces in the west of the country. In separate violence, police killed a protester during riots in the south-east. The unrest was triggered by the fatal shooting of a Communist election candidate, Rishi Raj Sharma, by unknown gunmen near the town of Nepalgunj.
In a bit complicated electoral procedure this time for Nepalese people (literacy rate-male 45%, female 35 %), the voters were asked to use two ballot papers to mark their choice, one for the direct election of their representative and the other for the party, so that the proportional representation of 335 seats can be made by the party out of the ‘closed lists’ submitted of their probable candidates.
The Himalayan entity to “democratic” domain, Nepal has a population of 26.4 million and it contains eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains. Hindus make up 80% of the population. Nearly one third of Nepalese lives on less than $1 a day. Nepal has witnessed a revolutionary change in its electoral system with special quotas for women (one-third) and oppressed classes, with a provision for Muslims too under the head of ‘others’.
Nepal has been hotbed of rivalry politics, killing many. The change was imminent since the royal massacre took place June 1, 2001, killing mysteriously the entire family of King Birendra, the citizen king Nepal has ever witnessed after the legendary Prithvi Narayan Shah, King of Gorkha, unified the territory in 1766 after winning the Kathmandu Valley. Birendra was a beloved ruler of the masses. He was quite unassuming in his talks and would offer to make tea for his guests. His brother Gyanendra rose to the throne but fell in public esteem as many believed he had a hand in the royal killings. Next seven years saw a turbulent period with more than 12,000 innocent Nepalese losing their lives at the hands of blood-thirsty Maoists who wanted to bring in an era of ‘red revolution’.
Weak economically and having a poor leadership, Nepal became a hotbed of various international players and strategic craftsmen from European proselytizers active under the garb of NGOs and various peace missions to the Chinese influences reflected in Maoists routed often through the Indian Communist parties who were more than willing to see a ‘red revolution’ fructifying in the neighborhood. After King Gyanendra failed to gauge the nation’s mood and became a stumbling block in the way of change, a seven-party coalition shook hands with the terrorist Maoist group and brought them into political mainstream by inviting them to be their eighth partner in governance.
From Undergound to Cabinet
From a outlawed group of so-called “terrorists” the Maoists have become makers of law for their country. Maoists have had a long journey. They have faced severe domestic and international pressure to give up arms and were labeled as terrorists rather than a political party by many, including the United States. A decade of insurgency left them dominating much of rural Nepal. After 10 years of fighting, the loss of 13,000 lives and massive damage to the country’s infrastructure and economy, they are making a strong bid to capture power in the centre.
In their days as a guerrilla force, their fundamental strategy was to gain influence in the countryside before surrounding and entering the capital, Kathmandu, for a final strike. Anti-Maoists view that it was the failure of the democratic parties, the king, the army and other security agencies which made the Maoists’ journey to the capital possible in the first place. But when the Maoists realized intimidation and violence were less effective in Kathmandu, they changed their strategy. In late 2004, they decided to work with mainstream political parties to further their goals. The strategy received a boost when King Gyanendra sacked the democratic government and took over power in February 2005. Enraged by the king’s action, the mainstream political parties decided to accept the Maoists into their fold. Together, the Maoists and the seven mainstream parties took on the king in a series of street protests in April 2006 that resulted in the king handing back power. In subsequent months, the Maoists became part of the interim parliament and the government. They have also shown an ability to outwit their opponents in a way that erodes the authority of much of the state.
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala told the parliament a new chapter had begun in the history of Nepal. “They have surprised themselves,” an Asian diplomat said of the Maoists, whose victories so far have come from areas not known to be their stronghold. “Even they had not expected this and every one thought that Maoists will be third. Maoists say people had voted for a change and for a “new vision.” Yet, it is still too early to say if the Maoists will clinch a majority. The complex election method is — 240 members of the assembly are to be elected on a first-past-the-post basis, 335 on proportional elections and the rest named by the cabinet.
FUTURE OF MONARCHY
The poll outcome will also decide the future direction of the country. King Gyanendra seized absolute power in 2005 but was forced to give up his authoritarian rule the following year after weeks of pro-democracy protests. The main reason for the decline is the royal massacre. He has since lost all his powers and his command of the army. The king meanwhile has urged everyone to vote in the poll. “It has always been our desire to ensure that under no circumstances are the nation’s existence, independence and integrity compromised, and to build a prosperous and peaceful nation through a democratic polity in keeping with the verdict of the sovereign people,” the king said.
After presiding over a worsening security situation and a civil rights clampdown, Gyanendra was forced by street protests to abandon his direct rule two years ago. United against him, other parties formed a new government. The government has tried to wipe out signs of the king. His face has been removed from new coins and currency notes. And the king is now due to be taxed, and his palaces likely to be nationalized. With the institution of Nepal’s monarchy now due to be abolished, few venture to voice support for the generally unpopular King Gyanendra. He values the tradition – but, he adds, an elected president would be just as good. But he has his supporters. “Without the monarchy in Nepal, this country will not remain. It will break into many pieces or it will be a part of India.” That is one of the major goals of India in the region after bringing Kashmir and Sikkim into its fold by all possible means.
This issue keeps ringing in the ears of every citizen of Nepal whether one like it or not. The monarchy is still valued by some – but it is also associated with autocracy. Many feel like Monarchy is no longer a symbol of national unity, but of national division. Most Nepalis think the massacre was all plotted by the successor king, Gyanendra, and his unpopular son, Crown Prince Paras. His unpopularity grew when he took direct power in the name of fighting the Maoist rebels. Maybe some in the older generation, who did worship the king as a reincarnation of God, might look back with some affection. He has been stripped of even his ceremonial roles, though in recent months his unofficial appearances at religious festivals have brought out crowds – sometimes cheering. But the ruling coalition has decreed that after the polls the monarchy will go. Royalist election rallies have been broken up by the Maoist party.
Indian media – especially the core ones in New Delhi– loudly cry over the “spoiled” relationships between the two Hindu neighbors. Indian journalists lament that Hinduism is not spreading beyond India. India is already burdened with too many worries now, all of them are self-earned. Kashmiris are determined to regain independence, while Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Bangladesh are not playing to New Delhi music and now Nepal is also getting out of Indian shadow. India which believes any thing Hinduism is “great” calls Nepal as its “civilisational” ally, meaning a Hindu ally. Nepal, India’s best friend and so far her closest civilisational ally, is set to reborn as a different nation. India used to train people for Nepal Hindutva militants to deal with “rise of Islam and Christianity”, but now more of young Nepalese go to the West for education.
India has used Nepal to sell its military and other goods there profitably. Now India blames both USA and China for spoiling India’s fortunes in Nepal. India proudly calls Nepal as Himalayan Hindu land. India says the Chinese obviously do not like the growing US presence and Nepal is fast becoming a playground of the two powers in their war of influence in south Asia. Some “patriots” advise the new leadership to be closer to India. They also reason, with China, Church and Islamists gaining ground in Kathmandu, it’s a challenge for India’s “nationalists” and Nepal’s genuine well wishers to rethink their Nepal policy. Ever-growing Nepal-Pakistan tries are hated by India.
Indian strategists had hoped Nepalese Congress and Communist Party of Nepal -United Marxist Leninist under the suave and India friendly leadership of Madhav may emerge as the final engines to the Nepalese “democracy”. But victory of Maoists has upset the Indian calculations very badly. They say India’s interests lie in ensuring that Nepal remains in the hands of Nepalese pro-India “patriotic” people and doesn’t fall prey to the western powers or the Chinese influences that would de-Nepalise the Himalayan nation to serve their strategic goals.
For whatever reasons, India has lost both Nepal and also the esteem and trust of her people. Nepalese politicos and media of the secular variety love to hate India and it pay politically to bash India in election speeches. Though till now, the relations with Nepal have remained more than the ‘most favored nation’ status with no passport and visa required to travel into each other’s territory, (just an official I-card would suffice, such closeness marks are fast changing), but in reality India dictates terms to Kathmandu.
Evan while killing and torturing Muslims in India, Kashmir and Bangladesh, Indian media still malign Muslims and say: “with Pakistan and Bangladesh bleeding India on both sides and a threatening China on the North, we can ill afford to have a new pain in the form of a Nepal turned ‘red’ under a Maoist dispensation”. However, with a view to keeping Nepal under its full control, Delhi would be prepared to give military help to the government in Kathmandu rather than see the Maoists seizing power.
The Maoists’ 10-year journey from the jungle to the government was partly a result of compulsion and partly political wisdom. The polls, for an assembly to re-write the constitution, are the first to test the Maoists at the ballot box. It is now certain that the Maoists would have the main say in Nepal government very soon. The polls, for an assembly to re-write the constitution, are the first to test the Maoists at the ballot box after their 10-year guerrilla campaign. The US – which regards the Maoists as terrorists – has congratulated the Nepalese people for holding elections which it says were mostly peaceful. Maoist say they look forward to an assembly that reflects the people’s will.
Maoist Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who changed his name to Prachanda, was on the verge of seeing his dream come true with his Maoist party sweeping. A graduate in agriculture, Dahal left his job as a school teacher in a village and groomed an army of revolutionaries with the dream of ousting the monarchy and establishing equality. It is expected that as the chief executive power of Nepal, Prachanda would fulfill the genuine aspirations of the Nepalese people.
The stunning victory of a once underground party mocked as “terrorists” even during the poll campaign and blamed for derailing the election last year also signaled the end of the road for Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, who despite his advanced age and chronic ill health was hoping to lead the government yet again. It also predicted the end for King Gyanendra, who jeopardized his forefather’s throne by trying to step out of constitutional monarchy and revive absolute reign.
Change of regime should result in prosperity of common people and nation. The new rulers have to concentrate on genuine welfare of the common Nepalese, in stead of trying to outsmart the political opponents in rhetoric. During the war, Maoists controlled huge swathes of the desperately poor countryside where basic services like roads, piped water, primary healthcare, education, electricity and telephones are lacking. Senior Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara said after being declared a winner “Nepali people are looking for economic, social, cultural and political changes… and a lasting peace. For this, they look to us as an alternative force,” he must breathe life into the future goals of Nepal.
It seems the army has already opposed the idea of the current interim parliament declaring Nepal a republic. Sources say the army is also unhappy about Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s Nepali Congress Party’s recent decision to vote for the abolition of the monarchy when the Constituent Assembly meets. The Maoists have now hinted that they are ready to compromise on the timing of the abolition of the monarchy. But they look far less likely to compromise on the proportional representation issue.
From emerging scenario, it is King Gyanendra who would be gaining. From a position of rock-bottom unpopularity, when he had to give up power in April, 2006, his standing has been gradually picking up – thanks to the chaos and discord among the political parties and Maoists. But the wider held view is that a final showdown between the army and the Maoists in Kathmandu is more likely than ever.
The Maoists might try to pressure other parties to agree to their demands for the immediate ending of the monarchy and for the CA polls to be held under a fully proportional voting system. Prachanda pledged to retain the ruling coalition till the new constitution was written and urged the bureaucracy and security forces to work together for the creation of a new Nepal. However, he was inexorable about the demolition of Nepal’s 239-year-old Shah Dynasty of kings. “We will work for a federal democratic republic to build a strong foundation for peace,” he said. That might give rsie to direct confrontation between the executive and the military Establishment that opposes abolition of monarchy, unless military opinion is totally ignored.
A senior Maoist leader in Nepal has urged the country’s beleaguered King Gyanendra to step down “gracefully.” The former rebels said that the abolition of the monarchy was now just a “matter of procedure”. The Maoists have won far more than many analysts had expected and they are now tipped to secure an absolute majority. senior army figure, Brigadier General Shiva Ram Pradhan, has expressed the willingness of the military to work with the new government.
The chairman of the country’s chamber of commerce has praised Maoist leaders for their promise to listen to the private sector when working out economic policy.
Former US President Jimmy Carter, who is an election observer, has said Washington must deal with the Maoists: “It’s the end, I hope, of armed conflict, of revolutionary war in fact”. That would mean the new government in Kathmandu will have support from both China and USA and also can hope for collaborative efforts form several nations across the globe.