This week has been a rollercoaster in Nepal, which held a general election on Tuesday. When I arrived a week and a half ago, the country was in the midst of a ‘banda’ – a strike called by a hardline splinter group from the Maoist party that were setting off bombs and stopping commercial vehicles from operating and generally trying to intimidate people out of voting. Every single article spoke about how disillusioned and nervous people were about coming out to vote.
Then Tuesday came and it felt like a miracle – voters defied the hardliners and came out in record numbers. I traveled on the back of an election monitor’s motorbike up through the mountains outside Kathmandu and found a terrific atmosphere – whole villages had come out to enjoy election day. Early estimates suggest a record turnout of over 70% – even better than 2008 when the country held its first fully democratic election.
But this morning brought depressing news. The Maoists, who had emerged as the largest party at the last election, decided that the elections were rigged and announced that they would not accept the results. The only evidence the Maoists could provide for these allegations (they have been declared free and fair by observers) was that their party was losing – badly – in the initial results. Their chairman, Prachanda, appears to have suffered a humiliating defeat in his Kathmandu constituency, coming third.
This is old-skool Communist behaviour – democracy is fine so long as you vote for the ‘right’ candidate. Nepal was on the verge of a major historical breakthrough – voters had made clear that they would not be cowed by militants and saw the ballot box as the best way to secure their future and move the country forward. The Maoists are threatening to undermine all the good will.
The added tragedy in all this is that the Maoists had a laudable progressive agenda to restructure the country in such a way that empowers the most marginalised communities in the country. Regardless of their childish actions today, that undercurrent is still alive and well in Nepal, but the next few weeks and months could see yet more political instability if the Maoists continue to act like spoiled children and refuse to take part in negotiations for a long overdue constitution.
Embracing democracy means accepting defeat when it comes – learning and adapting from it. Clearly the Maoists had made some serious mistakes that alienated the public – whimpering like a brat is not going to win them back.
To get some background on the deeper structural changes that are happening in Nepal, check out my article for Foreign Policy:
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.