It’s been more than a decade since the Maoists declared war on Nepal’s monarchy, and two years since King Gyanendra abdicated his throne. If all goes well today, both eras—of Maoists and monarchs —could come to an end, as voters cast their ballots for a 601-member assembly that will draft the country’s new constitution.
Since the king abdicated his throne in April 2006, elections had to be postponed twice because political leaders—both Maoists and from the parties—who thought they would lose colluded to have it postponed. The situation became a major headache for both India and China. Geopolitically, the two have divided their spheres of influence so that Beijing is content to allow India to handle Nepal. India convinced the Maoists and the political parties to combine forces against the king in 2005. New Delhi has steered the peace process ever since.
It’s ordinary Nepalese who have suffered as the economy stagnated. Despite huge hydropower potential, Nepal is reeling under a severe electricity shortage. The government can’t afford to subsidize gas imports anymore, but can’t raise prices either for political reasons. Food prices are soaring, investment has dried up, and Nepalese are migrating to work in the Gulf states, Malaysia and India in record numbers. A successful election could put Nepal back on track. In a switch from previous elections, people will vote directly for candidates and parties, which will then nominate members to represent Nepal’s diversity. Many of Nepal’s 103 ethnic groups will still not be included, but it is a start.
Even more encouragingly, the Maoists look willing to formally enter mainstream politics. That was, in part, pragmatism, as they knew they could not capture Kathmandu. This change of heart is also thanks to rebel leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda). He has bridged the gap between hardliners and the party’s moderate faction. For the past two months, guerrilla commanders have been addressing campaign rallies and asking people to vote for them. Some hardliners in the Young Communist League (YCL) have intimidated voters to minimize turnout and push the result in their favour. But Prachanda is still the Maoist leader—if he accepts the results, YCL will have to, as well.
The greater long-term threat may, ironically, come from the far-right absolute monarchists, who have been carrying out terrorist attacks to disrupt polls. And they’re unlikely to be satisfied with the poll results.
The ruling alliance of seven political parties has already agreed that the first session of the elected constituent assembly will declare Nepal a republic. But much else will remain to be decided—whether or not to integrate the Maoists into the national army, and what kind of federalism to have. The process of drafting a new constitution will take at least two years, and the assembly will serve also as a parliament. No one expects the drafting process to go smoothly. Recent months have seen an outpouring of pent-up ethnic demands for fair political representation from dozens of ethnic groups and castes, including, most prominently, the Madhesi people living in the plains bordering India.
How to address these grievances without letting militant groups seize the agenda will be a big challenge. Much will depend on how effective the government’s service delivery will be in that time. Yet, most Nepalese are eager to vote. They don’t care much about whether Nepal will remain a monarchy or become a republic.?They are more worried about peace, stability and a chance to improve their lives. They have high expectations that the constituent?assembly?will?resolve?the?nation’s problems and lift living standards.
It is easy to lose sight of just how extraordinary Nepal’s political makeover has been. A Hindu kingdom is being transformed into a secular republic. An absolute monarchy has been sidelined and delinked from the army, there has been a negotiated settlement to a brutal Maoist insurgency, and former guerrillas have been brought into an interim parliament. The new assembly won’t fix all that ails the country overnight. But at least it is a new beginning.
-The Wall Street Journal
Edited excerpts. Kunda Dixit is the editor of Nepali Times. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org