Kathmandu, Nepal: With one election on Thursday, this longtime Himalayan kingdom, wedged strategically between India and China, will have the chance to do what few modern nations have done: refashion its entire government.
After 10 years of fighting, Nepal’s Maoist insurgents have come out of the jungle and will take part in elections to choose a special assembly to rewrite the constitution. That bold experiment will give this nation of 27 million an opportunity to cement peace and install a fully elected government, while most likely ending the monarchy that has ruled Nepal for 250 years.
‘The fierce one’: Prachanda, whose real name is Pushpa Kamal Dahal, campaigns near Kathmandu.
But it is not without risks. Their rivals accuse the Maoists of bullying their way to power in a campaign marred by violence and intimidation. The Maoists insist they do not want to go back to war, but neither have they renounced armed struggle. Judging by the campaign, critics here and abroad say they do not trust that yesterday’s insurgents will act as democrats in the future.
A recent campaign stop for the former insurgent leader, known by his nom de guerre, Prachanda—or “the fierce one,” in Nepali—opened with the snap-crackle of small-gun fire blasting from a pair of scratchy speakers, punctuating a rousing revolutionary tune. Light the lamp of love, the lyrics went. I go carrying the flag of revolution and Nepal in my heart.
UN monitors have said that despite an agreement among the political parties to maintain peace, “violence and intimidation by party workers continued,” but it accused the Maoist supporters of responsibility for a majority of attacks. Rival parties have felt the sting most.
“Still, there are some doubts about their intentions,” said Shekhar Koirala, who is on the central committee of the rival Nepali Congress Party. “Still, they feel they can capture the government by sheer force. That is one big worry.”
With 10,000 polling places, about 10,000 candidates and more than 234,000 election workers to supervise the entire operation, Nepal has never had elections quite like this before.
The constituent assembly will decide whether to abolish the monarchy and will also determine how the country’s different ethnic groups and castes will be represented in government and even what kind of government Nepal will have.
Nepalese will in effect cast two votes. They will choose a candidate to represent their district and separately choose a party. To ensure that women and ethnic and caste groups have a voice, each party has had to abide by certain quotas.
The elections have been delayed twice, in part because of an armed ethnic uprising in Nepal’s south-eastern plains. Though the situation is mostly calm now, a handful of ethnic Madhesi factions there continue to threaten candidates.
“This election is part of the peace-building process,” the election commissioner, Bhojraj Pokharel, said in an interview. “This is not a normal election.”
The vote is taking place two years after street protests forced King Gyanendra to cede power and brought the Maoists out of the jungle. Under a peace deal, the rebels agreed to sequester nearly 20,000 fighters and to lock up weapons under UN supervision.
As the Maoists strive to cast themselves as law-abiding leaders, word and deed reflect an awkward balancing act. Sometimes, for instance, the Maoist leader, Prachanda, whose real name is Pushpa Kamal Dahal, says his party will “capture” the state. He salutes the guerrillas who have fought and died for the Maoist cause.
Once, he even referred to an October Revolution, which some took as a veiled threat that his cadres would take up arms again if they did not win the vote. Prachanda says he has not uttered the phrase since campaigning began.
On a recent morning, as hammer-and-sickle flags fluttered in the wind, Prachanda arrived at his campaign rally in a black-and-white chequered blazer. His hair was slicked back. He could have passed for a 1940s union boss were it not for the marigold garlands that hung on him like a florid neck brace.
Making presence felt: A man drives past the communist hammer and sickle painted on a wall in Kathmandu.
“I am not asking for your votes in the traditional sense,” Prachanda said, summing up the unease of a revolutionary forced to cast around like a prosaic politician. “My representation here is symbolic. I represent thousands of martyrs.”
By Prachanda’s own admission, former members of Maoist paramilitary squads function openly as the Young Communist League. They are accused of some of the worst excesses.
In mid-March in central Nepal, the youth cadres beat up workers of the rival Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), better known as UML, putting one candidate in hospital, according to the UN human rights agency in the capital city .
On Tuesday, another UML candidate was shot and killed, though it was not immediately clear who carried out the attack.
In February, the Nepali Congress Party accused the Maoists of setting a candidate’s home on fire as he was having lunch. As the candidate fled, a boulder was hurled at him from the top of a hill, causing him to fall and fracture his hip.
The Maoists say their cadres have also been beaten up by the rival UML workers, who unlike the Maoists have stayed away from armed struggle and bore the brunt of Maoist anger during the insurgency.
Pradip Nepal, a Communist Party member of parliament, said the tactics of the young Maoists had already become a political liability for Prachanda. “There are two types of Communists,” he said, summing up the differences with his rivals. “One is democratic, one is autocratic. Ours is a democratic party. Theirs is not.”
Ian Martin, the chief of the UN Mission in Nepal, said he had urged Prachanda, 54, to rein in his young supporters. “You can’t deny a political party the right to a youth movement,” Martin said. “But what you can insist upon is that the youth movement be peaceful and respect the norms of multi-party democracy.”
In an interview in his office here, Prachanda sought to allay fears, saying that the excesses had been tempered and that the young people were primarily engaged in directing traffic and planting trees.
He added that his party had time and again promised to abide by the election verdict and that it had no intention of going back to war.
As for the militant language, he said it was “for public consumption,” and directed at his own people.
“Because our party, our cadres have come from war, they always use the words we should have to capture, we should have to be militant, we should go ahead, we will win,” he explained, and then he smiled. “Even in using words, we have to be more cautious.”
He maintained that his insurgency had set the agenda for the elections, which many of the other major parties had now come around to accept: principally, a federal republic and the abolition of the monarchy.
But since then, the Maoists have added a new demand, which rival parties are not so enthused about: a presidential system. Their campaign slogan has been, “Prachanda for President.”
His party calls for overhauling the state and abandoning “feudal property relations” for a “capitalistic mode of production.” By way of specifics, Prachanda promises to improve the economy with a railroad line that would link Lhasa, in Tibet, to the Indian border. He says capitalists need not fear.
“We are fighting against feudalism, we are not fighting against capitalism,” Prachanda said in the interview. “In the phase of our socioeconomic development, it is not possible to have a socialist revolution. We are saying that this is a bourgeois democratic revolution.”
Not all are convinced, like Kunda Dixit, editor of The Nepali Times, an English-language weekly news magazine. “They are talking out of all sides of their mouth,” he said.
©2008/The New York Times