13 April 2008
By Gwynne Dyer
Unless the early election returns are completely misleading, Nepal will soon have the first freely elected Maoist government in history: 42 of the 75 seats declared so far (Sunday) have gone to the Maoists. This poses a considerable diplomatic problem for the United States, which still lists the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) as a terrorist organisation and refuses to talk to its leaders, but the crowds celebrating in the streets of Kathmandu don’t see it as a problem at all. One hopes that they are right.
The Maoists were certainly terrorists five or ten years ago, at least in the sense that almost all rural guerilla movements routinely employ terror to force the peasants to obey them. But Nepal’s Maoists seemed to be at the extreme end of the spectrum, using rhetoric that got them compared to Peru’s Sendero Luminoso or even to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.
But it doesn’t feel a bit like Year Zero in post-election Nepal. After a ten-year guerilla war that killed about 13,000 people, the Maoists accepted a cease-fire in 2006 and promised to enter the normal democratic process — or rather, the new democratic process that people hope will become normal, because until 1990 Nepal was an absolute monarchy. Popular demonstrations then forced the king to permit a form of democracy, but it was so corrupt and ineffective that the Maoists took to the hills in 1996.
The monarchy then proceeded to self-destruct. The crown prince, enraged by the fact that his parents would not let him marry the woman of his choice, machine-gunned nine of his relatives including the king, the queen, and his only brother and sister in 2001 and then killed himself. The late king’s brother Gyanendra, a widely disliked man who had never expected to ascend the throne, became king and failed at almost everything he tried, including most importantly the suppression of the Maoist rebellion.
In 2005, in desperation, King Gyanendra mounted a royal coup and resumed absolute rule, but he was forced to surrender his control of the government and the army by massive popular protests in 2006. It was at this point that the Maoists came in from the hills. They agreed to join an interim government with the established political parties, and to abide by the results of a democratic election. Their only non-negotiable demand was an end to the monarchy — and the other parties agreed to that, although it hasn’t happened yet.
So the shooting stopped, the bulk of the Maoist fighters gathered in camps to await incorporation into the army, and last week, after various delays, the promised election was finally held. Local political pundits, foreign diplomats and the large foreign aid community all expected the Maoists to do moderately well, but nobody thought they would actually win. It looks like they have.
They have promised to join a coalition government with the other parties regardless of the election’s outcome, and because of the complex voting system they may not get an absolute majority of the seats in parliament. They will almost certainly win a majority of the 240 winner-takes-all constituencies whose results will be known by the end of the week, but 335 other seats are decided by proportional representation and will take longer to decide.
One imponderable is the third of Nepal’s 29 million people who live in the Terai, the plains on the country’s southern fringe. They are in the midst of a powerful political backlash against the highlanders who traditionally monopolised all official positions — and even the Maoists are mostly highlanders. To complicate matters further, half of the proportional seats are set aside for untouchables or for “oppressed and indigenous peoples.” (Sixty different ethnic minorities make up a third of the population.) But the Maoists have special appeal for the excluded and downtrodden, so they will probably get their majority. What then?
The Maoist founder and leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, formerly known as Comrade Prachandra (“the fierce one”), now says that democracy is not “an alternative to armed struggle but a logical conclusion.” He even follows the Chinese Communist line that creating wealth is the priority, promising to raise annual per capita income in Nepal from $300 to $3,000 in ten years, and he accepts that this requires the “capitalist mode of production.”
In an interview with the Guardian earlier this month, Prachandra insisted that his conversion from “people’s war” to the ballot box was permanent. “Look at all the great revolutions and counter-revolutions in the last century. We came to the conclusion that multi-party competition is a must for a vibrant society, even a vibrant socialist society.” There’s a reasonably good chance that he really means it, but old habits die hard.
Nepal is picturesque, but it has always been a desperately poor and grotesquely unfair society where most people led lives of grim misery. It certainly needs a social and economic transformation, and it was unlikely that the existing political parties, drawn from the same narrow elite who have dominated the country for centuries, were ever going to bring that about. So the poor majority have voted for the only group in sight that seriously wanted to make that transformation happen.
They did not vote for Pol Pot and Year Zero, for tyranny and genocide. We will find out in due course if they have chosen well.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“They have…What then?”)