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Surprise victory

by Thomas Bärthlein
Maoist ex-rebels unexpectedly emerged as the strongest force in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly from elections in April. Whether they will be able to fulfil voters’ hopes remains to be seen. It is obvious, however, that many voters had grown tired of the established parties and the monarchy. [ By Thomas Bärthlein ]

The Maoist victory surprised most observers, both in Nepal and abroad. Before the elections, most had put the ex-rebels in third place behind the two major established parties, the Nepali Congress and the UML, a left-wing alliance. Even the Maoists themselves seemed afraid of a debacle. Until the last minute, they had demanded guarantees from the other parties that at least their top leadership would get mandates.

After discussing with many voters and political observers in Nepal, I think that three factors tipped the scales in favour of the Maoists.
– Protest: many voters were disappointed by the other parties and they had grown weary of the monarchy. They therefore wanted to “give the Maoists a chance”, as many put it. The desire for a “new Nepal” went along with the desire to see some new faces. For the same reason, the new regional party Madhesi Forum had very good results in the area bordering on India. It is, however, a fierce opponent of the Maoists.
– High expectations: people who suffered discrimination in the past hope that matters will improve for them under the Maoists. This includes women, oppressed castes, ethnic minorities and the rural poor. Members of South Asia’s privileged elites tend to underestimate the extent of dissatisfaction among the masses. That became similarly evident when India’s BJP lost the parliamentary elections, which came as a surprise to most experts. However, Maoist voters were won over by more than leftists’ classic social-justice causes. The ex-rebels are also considered relatively clean in corruption terms. The wide-spread hope in Nepal that the Maoists might turn the country into some kind of “Switzerland” is noteworthy.
– Peace: the Maoists had repeatedly threatened to take up arms again if they were defeated. Many voters obviously wanted to ensure that the peace process goes on. For that to happen, the Maoists have to be integrated into mainstream politics.

At first sight, the parliamentary system has been stabilised. The high voter turn-out of 60 % is a sign of confidence. It should now be very difficult for the Maoists to go back underground. They are the strongest party in the Constituent Assembly, though they do not command an absolute majority.

Once again, it has become obvious that the line between official politics in elected bodies and extra-parliamentary militancy is quite fluid in South Asia. The threshold at which violence is adopted is relatively low; but there is also more scope for re-integrating rebel forces into the mainstream. In an attempt to build confidence at home and abroad, the Maoists are now making efforts to prove that they are moderate. They have declared their commitment to the multi-party system, the peace process and all-party cooperation to draft the new constitution. The international community should give this democratically elected force a chance to prove responsible in office. Any attempt to marginalise the “terrorists” would probably back-fire in the sense of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In Nepal itself, roles among parties are being reversed. In the past, the Maoists were the thorn in the side of the all-party transitional government. For example, they kept threatening to let the elections fall through. Now it is the UML, defeated at the polls, that has announced its withdrawal from the Cabinet; and the Maoists are suddenly courting the other parties. The Madhesi Forum’s availability for talks and even interest in joining the government are promising signs.

The greatest success for peace, stability and democracy in Nepal was the fact that the twice-postponed elections took place despite concerns and resistance and, furthermore, that they proceeded relatively smoothly. Nepal’s strong civil society will no doubt put pressure on the parties to keep the peace and constitutional process on track.

One loser, however, is clear. Unpopular King Gyanendra must leave his palace.