Journalist | Writer | Analyst
31 March 2008
A vote for change, a vote for peace
On April 10, the Nepal peace process which formally began in 2005 with a 12-point understanding between seven parliamentary parties and the Maoists will enter a decisive stage with the holding of elections for the Constituent Assembly (CA).
Up for grabs are 240 first-past-the-post (FPTP) and 335 proportional representation (PR) seats, with the remaining 26 members of the 601-strong CA to be nominated by the Prime Minister. Every voter will be given two ballots, one listing candidates contesting the FPTP election from their particular constituency and one listing parties in the fray for PR seats. The major parties are all committed to abolishing the monarchy in the CA’s first sitting. And a federal republic also figures prominently in their manifestos. This is the new mainstream the Maoists can justly take credit for creating. For a party which walked out of parliament to launch a “People’s War” in 1996 when its list of 40 demands — including the establishment of an inclusive, federal republic — was rejected by the other parties and the monarchy, this is a spectacular achievement by any yardstick.
Across the country today, campaigning is in full swing. This reporter spent eight days travelling through 15 constituencies across Sunsari, Morang, Jhapa, Kaski, Palpa, Kapilbastu, Dang and Banke districts. While it is impossible to predict the outcome, it is clear that the three major national formations contesting all the FPTP and PR seats — the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) (UML) — will poll strongly. In the Tarai region bordering India, parties claiming to represent the Madhesi people will attract a sizeable number of votes, though not necessarily FPTP seats.
While voters are unwilling to speak explicitly about their own preferences, a common refrain I heard in Kathmandu and all the districts I visited was that “people are saying the Maoists should also be given a chance.” Indeed, the former rebels’ official slogan of “You’ve seen everyone else before, now see the Maoists” has struck a chord with ordinary people. “I don’t know how the voting will go,” Shankar Kharel, the owner of a small clothing store in the western Tarai town of Nepalganj, told me, “but the Maoists have an appeal because they are the only new force.” In Tansen, a town in Palpa district where a Maoist attack on the security forces in 2006 destroyed the historic Durbar building, Meghnath Thapa, a cobbler, said, “the Maoists should be given a chance. I am 90 per cent sure they will win.”
But the former rebels face an uphill battle. The FPTP system favours established parties with existing political networks and familiar candidates. And though the CA election involves a “mixed” system, the parties are campaigning in pure FPTP mode, which is bound to hurt newer players like the Maoists. “I am now going around introducing myself to the voters,” said Rajkaji Gurung, the 30-year-old Maoist candidate from Kaski-2 constituency. Asked how the switch from armed struggle to open politics had been, Mr. Gurung said, “we were not only for the gun. We were also fighting for political issues. So after the peace process, going to the people on a purely political basis is not difficult.” Though he did not say so, it was clear that old ties of ethnicity and kinship — so much a part of South Asian electoral politics — were also being drawn on by his party: Shortly after I interviewed him, he went on to speak at a well-attended meeting of the Gurung community.
Gurung, who still uses his nom-de-guerre ‘Karan’, was underground for more than 10 years. And critics of the Maoists say old habits die hard. “The Maoists have traditionally had an armed mentality and they have not yet freed themselves fully from this,” K.P. Sitaula, Nepal’s Home Minister, told this reporter in an interview at his constituency in the far-eastern Jhapa district. This is the reason their activists were resorting to intimidation of other parties, he said, a charge Maoist leaders strenuously deny.
In the 1999 elections, the NC and UML (including the erstwhile breakaway Bam Dev Gautam faction) each polled 37 per cent of the votes, up from 33 and 31 per cent respectively in 1994. Past performance, however, is of little help in predicting the election outcome this time around. Not only have the Maoists emerged as a formidable electoral contender but the rise of Madhesi political formations will eat into the sizeable share the NC has traditionally enjoyed in the Tarai. A plausible scenario, therefore, is for the Big Three to poll between 20 and 30 per cent each with a likely distribution being 20-25-30. But who will come first is important, because the largest party would have the right to lead the multi-party coalition which will govern Nepal until its new constitution is finalised.
In Kathmandu, the received wisdom in both diplomatic and elite circles is that the Maoists are going to poll poorly and will be able to win at best 10 or 12 per cent of the seats that too only by resorting to large-scale violence. But this may be wishful thinking. Random evidence of working class support for the Maoists — many taxi drivers in the capital, for example, openly proclaim their support for them — is explained away as the product of intimidation. One theory I heard was that taxi drivers display Maoist stickers in their cars to protect themselves from the YCL. Another theory is that taxi drivers do not fear the YCL but have put up Maoist stickers to protect themselves from the traffic police, who presumably fear the YCL. (For the record, I did not meet a single taxi driver who agreed with these theories).
Despite the fact that the former insurgents are waging an energetic campaign everywhere and their activists and leaders exude the same confidence as those of other parties, the Nepali media’s stock analysis is that the Maoists are running scared. ‘The Maoists either want the elections cancelled or will do anything to disrupt them’ is a frequent comment one hears. One diplomat told me his biggest fear was that the Maoists would do poorly and may launch some kind of “urban insurrection.” So secure are the foreign legations in this assessment of theirs that little thought is being given to the possibility of the Maoists coming first, second or even a creditable third. And even less attention is being paid to the one place from where the threat of disruption is the greatest: the Palace, with its subterranean links and shady connections.
To a certain extent, this attitude is a reflection of both the Maoists’ earlier track record of violence as well as of a discernible bias in current local and international media coverage. Allegations of poll-related violence involving the Young Communist League (YCL) or Maoists are printed prominently, while incidents in which Maoists are attacked are downplayed. On March 18, for example, when a candidate of a smaller left party, the Janamorcha, was shot dead in Banke district in the Tarai, a prominent human rights organisation, the National Election Observation Committee, declared that the assassins were Maoists. This allegation received banner coverage. Three days later, when the Banke police arrested the killers who were affiliated to the Jwala Singh faction of the Jantantrik Tarai Mukti Morcha, the news was relegated to the inside pages.
Expressing his frustration at what he said was the bias of the media, Maoist leader Prachanda pointed out last week that 55 unarmed Maoist cadres had been killed since the peace process began, including several during the election campaign itself. In an interview to The Hindu, he expressed the fear that an exaggerated picture of Maoist violence was being painted by circles influenced by the Palace in order to justify delaying, cancelling or otherwise disrupting the elections. “Please look at the statistics. In Rolpa, Kapilbastu and elsewhere, it is our cadres who have been targeted and killed. If voting is free and fair, we think we will come first. If we do not, obviously we will respect the verdict.”
Though media accounts of clashes involving the YCL might well be blown out of proportion and reported in a one-sided manner, the fact remains that the Maoists have a serious perception problem.
Certainly, the remark Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai made recently about his party’s defeat leading to a fresh revolt was seen as evidence that the former rebels were still not ready to accept multi-party democracy. Asked what it is he meant to say, Bhattarai told The Hindu that his intention was not to threaten an insurrection or a new phase of “Peoples’ War”. “The Constituent Assembly, federalism, restructuring of the Army, a republic which guarantees the rights of all peoples including the Madhesis, janajatis and Dalits — all of this is our agenda — and if we are not in the CA to lead it, this agenda simply won’t be implemented,” he said. “If the CA is unable to deliver on all these fronts, then clearly the conflict in Nepal will resume one way or another.” Bhattarai said “class struggle” would continue if the agenda was not implemented but this did not mean an armed struggle or insurrection.
Others echo the same fear about the consequences of the CA failing to live up to popular expectations. “If we do not manage the issues of the ethnic groups, it is not possible to manage stability,” Vinda Magar, the NC candidate from Kaski-3 told me. “The CA will have to address the voices of the Dalits, janajatis, women. If not, it will not be possible to have peace.”
Another candidate, Rabindra Adhikari of the UML, echoed the same sentiment. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that the three big parties will have to stick together after the elections, he said. “We have worked as partners till the elections and will do so again after. Our party does not want two parties to gang up against the third. Neither should the UML and Maoists try and weaken the NC, nor should we and the NC try and weaken the Maoists. I think we all have an equal stake in the future of Nepal.”