April 16 2008
At the close of polls in Nepal last week, election workers at a voting station in Kathmandu’s picturesque Durbar Square burst into spontaneous applause. The silence from the ornate royal palaces behind underscored the sense of history being made as the Himalayan country prepares to jettison its 240-year-old monarchy for a democratic republic.
The largely peaceful elections to a constituent assembly cemented a 2006 peace accord marking the end of a 10-year-long civil war led by Maoist rebels that claimed some 13,000 lives. Nepal’s peace process indicates “that you have to bring people into the mainstream by talking to them, not killing them”, says Ali Saleem, part of the observation team of the Asian Network for Free Elections, a non-governmental organisation that helped monitor elections.
How the peace process proceeds is of pressing concern not only for the country of 27m but also for its giant neighbours – China and India. Nepal forms a strategic buffer between them and has an open border with India, which is grappling with its own Maoist insurgency in poor rural areas.
Final results will take at least two more weeks while ballot boxes are carried down from Nepal’s remote mountains and plains. Re-polling must meanwhile be conducted at 106 voting stations disrupted by violence and other “irregularities”. But in a stunning upset, the Communist party of Nepal (Maoist) is leading the early results. With more than 50 political groupings in the contest, pre-election predictions that no single party would capture a majority may still be borne out. But support for the left has been vast. By yesterday, with 198 out of 240 constituency results declared, the Maoists had 113 seats. The centrist Nepali Congress was next with 30 and the Communist UML had 28.
These early results pose vexing questions. Can the Maoists convert their promises of an inclusive, peaceful Nepal into political and economic reality? Could their strong showing change the dynamics, if not the composition, of the existing interim coalition government – in which the Maoists are represented along with other main parties and which is to continue in office while the assembly drafts a new constitution? What are the regional implications of the outcome, particularly for India – and will the US, which still classifies the Maoists as terrorists, change its stance?