Gagan Thapa from the NC party who won his CA seat with the widest margin in the seat of Kathmandu-4.
Images by Arpan Shrestha
After 18 months of confusion, frustration, and an unreasonable level of face palming, Nepal finally went to the polls last week to elect a Constitutional Assembly (CA). Record crowds of voters braved ongoing threats and actual acts of violence, including a bomb that ripped off a small boy’s hand outside a polling station in the capital city, Kathmandu. While their party allegiances differed, Nepal’s largely impoverished populace was united by one message for their politicians: quit dicking around and start delivering on forgotten promises, such as a Constitution.
Voting for a CA wasn’t exactly a new experience for the Nepali people. After a decade of civil war, Nepal’s first post-revolution government was elected in 2008. Its main purpose was drafting a Constitution: a necessary blueprint for cementing this ethnically diverse country’s post-war peace process. Unfortunately, the Maoist-led government charged with this responsibility couldn’t get its shit together and was eventually euthanised, like a senile family dog that’s started biting random children and pissing on the carpet. This means Nepal has essentially been plodding along without an elected government since early 2012.
A woman prepares to vote in Kathmandu
While it’s early days, it now looks like Nepal is set for some more plodding. This is not because the results of last week’s CA elections are inconclusive. Two political parties, the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), are set to dominate the new government, although a clear winner won’t be known for weeks. On the other hand, the Maoist party is facing undeniable defeat, with this once-dominant rebel group so far only winning 25 of the 237 seats counted. This number is even more humiliating as a percentage: just 10 per cent of the incoming government.
Never one to be deterred by the ebbs and flows of democracy, the leader of the Maoists, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (better known as Prachanda) is now boycotting the entire election process. In political speak, this means he’s thrown a diplomatic hissy fit, and won't recognise the new government. Nepali journalist and author, Prashant Jha, puts this boycott in more delicate terms: “Their stated reason (for boycotting) is that large-scale irregularities have taken place in the counting process, such as the movement of ballot boxes from the booth to the counting station,” he told VICE.
Nepali vote fraud isn’t an entirely impossible proposition, and there’s already been a sprinkling a recounts following “unfavourable” polling conditions. Yet Prachanda’s boycott is quickly looking like very sour grapes. “The Maoists came up with (the issue of voting irregularity) once it became clear they were losing. This portrays them as bad losers,” says Jha. He says this boycott is a “mistake” and a “miscalculation” that laughs in the face of Nepal’s post-revolutionary regime. “Once they have accepted the democratic framework, they must play by the rules of the game,” he adds.
Voters are split by gender at a polling booth in Badhikhel
It’s not currently clear if the Maoists will continue their boycott once (or if) the new government sits in parliament. Prachanda is a persuasive man, as well as a former military boss that earned his stripes leading the rebellion against Nepal’s 240-year-old monarchy in the 1990s. At this stage, nobody is suggesting another rebellion, but it’s clear the situation is tenuous. This precariousness is only being increased by the rising prominence of a radical Maoist faction, which rejects Nepal’s 2006 peace agreement and was linked to pre-election uncertainty, strikes, and haphazard violence.
Five years ago, the Maoists symbolised hope, and were credited with leading the revolution against a greedy ruling class and an incompetent monarchy. “(They) were a new force, but an untested one,” says Jha. “In fact, the Maoists had campaigned with the slogan: you have tried everyone else, give us a chance once.” This slogan may not have been as catchy as Yes We Can but its sentiments resonated with voters. They went on to sweep the 2008 elections, declare a secular republic, and instate Prachanda as Nepal’s first post-war prime minister.
Skip forward five years and that cynical slogan doesn’t have the same ring to it. “This time, people seemed to feel that they gave them a chance,” says Jha. It was predictable that voters would hold the Maoists responsible for the last five year’s failures, even though the reality is more complex than this. (For instance, the other major parties largely refused to negotiate with them.) Yet few foresaw the current voter wrath. Even Prachanda has lost one of his seats, as has another former-Maoist prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai, and a host of divisive figures, such as those from the vocal Madhesi ethnic group in the south.
More voters queue for Nepal's first election in five years
The Maoists’ pending replacements—host of NC and UML candidates with links to the previous regime—signals a new political period. Again, nobody is currently suggesting a counter-revolution, but the 2013 election results do somewhat symbolise a revival of the ‘old’ Nepal of mountains, sherpas, and undemocratic monarchic structures. “These (two) parties are still controlled by the old, grey-haired, upper-caste males who do not represent the young, diverse, and dynamic Nepali population whose median age is 21 years,” wrote Nepali journalist, Mukesh Khanal, on Sunday.
The largely jubilant crowds seem happy with their decision for now. Both Khanal and Jha warn the marginalisation of ethnic issues (Nepal has more than 100 recognised groups) could be one issue that may make them regret their decision. This will be one major issue the next CA will have to handle, as it hopefully goes onto drafting a Constitution and deciding on the issue of federalism. “My cautious optimism has turned to a shade of doubt for the future because of the Maoist decision (to boycott),” says Jha. “But it is early days, and let us see what happens once high level dialogue resumes between all parties.” And so Nepal continues to plod.
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