In Nepal: Making History at the Polls
April 9, 2008
Nepalis go to the polls on April 10th for the most important election in their nation’s history, one that will choose a 601 member Constituent Assembly to rewrite Nepal’s constitution. The election has been a long time coming, and its success is crucial to Nepal’s immediate peace and democratic future.
Beginning as an unfulfilled promise by King Tribhuvan in the 1950s, the call for a Constituent Assembly reemerged in the 1990s as one of 40 demands by the Maoist insurgents. After a decade of armed conflict, in 2006 the Maoists and the government signed a comprehensive peace agreement that included as a key feature elections to a Constituent Assembly. The government scheduled polls in June 2007, and then again in November 2007, but both times the elections were postponed due to political maneuvers and unrest. Now, on the third attempt, the election is finally going forward.
On the eve of the polls, the environment for a free and fair election remains problematic. Amidst the festive rallies and speechmaking throughout the country in recent weeks, there have been widespread violations of the election code of conduct. Some candidates have been prevented from entering their own constituencies to campaign, and sometimes beaten and even killed. In Banke district, Kamal Adhikari of the Jana Morcha party was taken from his home and shot by a militant group that had warned him not to run for election. Last Monday, when members of the Maoist-affiliated Young Communist League (YCL) attempted to obstruct a meeting of the Nepali Congress (NC) party in Nawalparasi district, cadres of both parties were injured in the scuffle that ensued. This was one of more than 20 similar incidents reported that same day. The government has been weak in responding to violations, due partly to capacity constraints, but also to concern about maintaining the delicate political balance on which the peace process hinges.
Over this past weekend, a series of small bombs aimed to derail the election were detonated in Kathmandu, allegedly by armed groups from the Terai, or southern plains, and more violence ” including several people shot dead ” was reported on Wednesday. The government banned all campaign activities 48 hours before the polls open and suspended the sale of alcohol in some areas. There will be no vehicular traffic on election day, with voters expected to walk to polling stations within five kilometers of their homes.
Despite the challenges, there are reasons to believe the election can be a success. The Election Commission, which is widely viewed as competent and non-partisan, has made sound logistical preparations. A multitude of domestic and international election observers is being deployed. More than 50,000 Nepali observers are accredited for election day. The National Election Monitoring Alliance (NEMA), which receives technical and financial support from The Asia Foundation, is fielding 18,900 observers, one for almost every polling station in the country. Over 700 international observers are accredited. The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), also with Asia Foundation support, is fielding 103 observers from 22 Asian nations, its largest mission ever. The highest profile observer is former President Jimmy Carter, who is leading a delegation of 60 persons. In addition, The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director of Elections and Political Processes, Tim Meisberger, prepared a guide for international observers of the 2008 Constituent Assembly Elections in Nepal.
The tremendous international support for this election is a tribute to Nepal, and also recognition of the high stakes involved. While it is likely that parties will challenge the election results regardless of their veracity, the question is whether the contenders can reach a consensus that will allow the Constituent Assembly to be formed. If the election is a success, Nepal will have crossed a major hurdle in its difficult peace process. More significantly, it will be poised to draft a constitution that can help Nepal transition from centuries of feudalism into a more inclusive, just, and democratic nation”a “New Nepal.” If the election fails, the political vacuum will be immense and further unrest and instability certain.
Click here to read a Washington Post story featuring Nick’s comments on the elections.
Nick Langton is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Nepal. He can be reached at [email protected].
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