From Nepal: Election Detour in the Himalayas
October 17, 2007
The Maoists were polite, but firm: no civic or voter education activities could be conducted until their national political demands were met. Hours of negotiation succeeded only in convincing the young men not to burn the voter education materials that our local partners intended to distribute. For the previous two hours we had watched our partners complete a two-day voter education training of facilitators and a mock election in the small classroom in Nepal’s Rasuwa District. The trainers were dedicated and professional, and were visibly excited to educate their fellow villagers about the upcoming Constituent Assembly election. With the memory of violence from Nepal’s ten-year-long Maoist insurgency still fresh in their minds, they watched as the Maoists ripped posters from the walls and carted all the voter education materials away. As we learned later, this heartbreaking scene in Rasuwa was being played out in districts all across Nepal, with voter and civic education activities being disrupted in scores of localities.
The Maoists succeeded in their goal of delaying the election. On October 5th, the Chief Election Commissioner announced that the Constituent Assembly election, scheduled for November 22nd, would be impossible. Nepalis were understandably baffled: Maoist insurgents had fought their guerilla war for a decade, and holding a Constituent Assembly election to redraw the country’s constitution and framework of governance had always been one of their central demands.
So why were the Maoists opposed to a November election date? In part, because they feared what many communist parties have traditionally feared: that they might not do very well in a free and fair election. They stated that two demands must first be resolved: replacing the mixed electoral system with full proportional representation, and declaring the country a republic prior to the election. But their reasons were also deeper. The Maoists have taken an increasingly hard-line approach in part, it appears, because they feel the government is not sincere in delivering on commitments it made in a series of peace agreements to downsize the army, integrate former Maoist combatants, and tackle difficult issues such as land reform and caste discrimination.
Now Nepal’s peace process stands at a crossroads. Before the country can begin voter education and related activities, the political parties, including the Maoists, must resolve their disputes about the electoral system and forming a republic. Those steps are crucial, but even they will not be enough to ensure a free, fair, and safe election. All parties need to take a hard look at themselves, and begin implementing the agreements they have already committed to. The Maoists need to leave their habits of violence and intimidation behind, just as the government must demonstrate that it is willing to change how it does business in a country that remains one of the most profoundly discriminatory ” on the basis of gender, language, class and caste ” anywhere in the world.
In Rasuwa, and across Nepal, the people are eager to have their voices heard.
Brenda Norris is a Program Manager for The Asia Foundation in Nepal.
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