April 10, 2008 – Nepal’s Historic Election

Today is Election Day, a day of R&R for me because everything is shut down: schools, businesses, all motorized transportation, and even the sale of alcohol! But for 15 Million voters in Nepal, it is election day, the day that Nepalis decide who will be elected to the new Constituent Assembly to forge a new, interim government, to write a new constitution, and to decide whether they will maintain a King as a Ceremonial Monarch, as in England. All those who are registered to vote must return to their place of registration to vote, and so the highways have been full of buses the past few days carrying people out of the cities back to their home villages, as well as buses and caravans of party campaigners waving flags and banners and shouting slogans out their windows.

The weeks leading up to the election have been full of headlines of one party’s gang members beating up those of another party, including murdering the opposition’s candidates! Leaders were beginning to feel that the Maoists wouldn’t live up to their agreement of accepting the election results if they didn’t win. The Maoist Leader Prachandra repeated his promise to follow the will of the people even though his cadres in the countryside were having a field day intimidating villagers, but the Maoists weren’t alone. Other parties were also resorting to violence and intimidation. The Election Commission has threatened several districts of disqualification if the violence continued. 800 Foreign and UN observers began flying into Katmandu, such as Jimmy Carter and 60 others from the Carter Center. Finally, 24 hours before Election Day, all violence along with road traffic ceased, as all parties had agreed, and Katmandu at least has seen a calm and stillness that it has rarely known in the past decade. Even most shops and restaurants in the tourist section are closed and our guest house and restaurant are enjoying a boom in business without the competition.

There are 8 major parties, but the top 3 are the Nepali Congress (NC) Party, the United Marxist-Leninist (UML) Party, and the Maoist (CPN-M) Party. Believe it or not, the UML is considered to be the “middle path” by many, while the NC are and CPN-M are regarded as the parties to the right and left of center, resp. This doesn’t mean that most support the UML or that most Nepalis are commies because the UML has bought into the establishment and is really more like a conservative socialist party than a communist party. More to the point, I have not met anyone prior to the election who could explain to me just how the election is really supposed to work? Many of the voters are showing up at the polls not knowing what to do, and many votes are being disqualified for using inked fingerprints to make the selection and an ink seal where they are supposed to fingerprint. Further, a constituent assembly is supposed to somehow represent the voter’s caste, but it is unclear how, and so, most are learning everything at the polling station. What a job!
Consequently, the results of this election are totally unpredictable, which means no one is hazarding a guess as to the outcome. If the NC wins, it will be business as usual, if the Maoists win, there may be dramatic changes…for the better remains to be seen. But in all likelihood there will be no clear winner and the government will be a coalition, probably with UML and Maoists forming a coalition for some changes, but perhaps too little too late. As my Franco-American resident friend here puts it: “Do you think an election is going to make one bit of difference?” I fear that that may be the case.

So, I sit in the guest house reading and writing, waiting to see what the results will bring and what our next move will be in the short run and in the long run. Can we get back on the road and cover the schools in the East, or is there going to be a kickback reaction of violence against the results from Hindu fundamentalists if the King is completely deposed? If the NC wins, will the Maoists in the West protest by demonstrating and blockading roads like they did last year? It is a good time to sit back and let go of it all, let Karma play its hand, and not try to force ours.

Three Days Later: the Landslide
Well, three days later, and Nepal is still counting the results. One of the nicest things to witness is how everyone is glued to the TV waiting for the next district to update its counts. FM radio stations are giving hourly updates, and there is a general buzz in the air that a historic change in direction is in the offing. Some of the shopkeepers and private school principals are afraid of changes, and I try to reassure them that something has to be done or Nepal will dry up like a vineyard waiting for rain.

Jimmy Carter, the UN and other foreign observers, as well as Nepali officials have all been lauding the fair, free, and openness of the polling. The Election Commission will rerun voting at 106 polling stations where there seems to have been some “irregularities” (usually intimidation, most often, but not exclusively, by Maoist cadres). At this time the Maoists have a clear majority not only did their candidates sweep the countryside but many of the cities as well. There is no question that Nepalis are fed up with the status quo (escalating fuel and food costs, decaying infrastructure, corruption, etc) and simply decided to throw the rascals out. Even though the King has graciously come out and expressed his pleasure at seeing the turnout and the will of the people expressed, it seems very likely that the Constituent Assembly will throw out the last vestige of the King as well. Prachandra, the Maoist Party Leader, says that in two weeks that the King will be the first order of business when the CA convenes, and he thinks that the King should be out of Palace by then, returning it to the people. The 240 year old Monarchy is all but history.

One week Later: Counting the Votes
The election process, modeled on the MSLM (Modified Sainte Lague Method), is very complex. There will be 601 seats in the interim (probably about 2 years) Constituent Assembly which will govern and write the new constitution. Although there will be only one assembly of 601 seats, the people voted with two ballots. The first ballot goes towards selecting the party candidate who will fill one of 240 seats, and the second for their party choice. The party will then be rewarded a “proportional number” of 335 seats to which they will assign a party candidate, and finally their will be26 seats chosen by the “old guard” leaders. If you add this up: 240+335+26=601.

The MSLM is, of course, a compromise that was worked out amongst the 8 Major Parties over the previous 2 years since the King stepped down and reinstated the government The MSLM seems like a really fair way which tried to incorporate everyone’s position, so it has all been agreed to by everyone running. For example, the 26 seats represents a way reassure the old guard that they would not be forgotten: so even most of the old guard was defeated heavily by the Maoists, they can still play a role in the formation of the new government. The “Proportional Representation” (PR) Electoral System which leaves 335 seats to be allocated by party choice favors the smaller parties and minorities. For example, Even though the Maoists won almost half of the 240 candidate seats, they only garnered one third of the total popular vote. Consequently they will only get 1/3 of the 335 Proportional seats, or 111 additional seats. The NC which won only 1/8 of the candidate seats will get 1/4 (or 80 additional) PR seats since they won 26% of the popular vote. One problem, however, is that the parliament building (which had two houses) only seats a maximum of 400 seats, so for the next two years the Constituent Assembly will have to meet in the Birendra International Conference Center here in Katmandu!

The bottom line is that the Maoists candidates won an overwhelming number of seats (117 out of 240), but by Proportional Representation they are only assessed 111 more seats, making a total of 228 plus a portion of the 26 seats remaining. A majority is half of 601, or 300 needed. This means that they are 60-70 votes shy of a majority. Even with an overwhelming turnout for the Maoists, they will have to form alliances and work cooperatively with the other parties….Prachandra and Dr. Bhattarai are pragmatists who realize that now that they have won, they must live up to their pre-election agreements. They are openly welcoming the chance to work with the other parties in a positive way to bring the country together. Some of the other parties are “sore losers” such as the UML, as many of the leaders being soundly beaten, are withdrawing their party’s participation in the government…although they remain resolved to participate in the writing the new Constitution. As an outsider, I can’t understand how they can have their cake and eat it, too. But hey, that’s politics!

Nepali New Years
The day after the election was Nepali New Years and it is also the time when the Red and White Majendranath Gods are taken out of their temples, placed on huge chariots with sky-high towers, and wheeled (pulled by ropes) around the city blessing the different wards. Because they are so tall (my guess is that they tower 40 feet above the streets), they are rather “tippy.” I saw the “White” Chariot being constructed and noted that the tower framework was already listing from the outset. So, it was no surprise to find that once again the whole thing toppled over rounding a corner—12 were injured! When this happens it portends bad luck for the monarchy…the last time this happened the Royal Family was assassinated in 2002. And now, the fallen chariot portends the end of the monarchy altogether. But, in addition, there will be a trickle down that will impact the rich cultural tradition of Nepal. For example, what will future topplings portend when there is no Monarchy? Who’s the fall guy? Another example is the Living Virgin Goddess Kumari. She is only 12 years old and “prematurely” had her first menstruation a few months ago, and so she must now step down and let priests select another child to take her place. In the Durbar (Palace grounds) of Katmandu stands the Kumari House, her home, which is now vacant, waiting for the selection of its next occupant. One of her important functions is to bless the King each year at about this time….what is to become of the beloved Kumari now? What will be her role without a King?

Election Trickle Down
The New Year’s election results came as quite a shock to many, esp., to our state department. The US Embassy is among all the others here in Katmandu reeling from being blindsided by the Maoist landslide. After the election Som and I talked with one of our embassy officials who explained that the they now realize that all the embassies were simply listening to same urban-based Nepali informants and that they had little contact with the sentiment of the people in the countryside (Duh, 80% of the people are farmers and live in the countryside). Even so, the Maoist won the popular vote throughout the Katmandu Valley, too, and they couldn’t even get that right! As soon as I saw that the Maoists were winning half the wards in Katmandu, I knew it was all over.

The week before the election while we were outside the valley visiting schools, busloads of party campaigners on the road were passing us cheering and waving their party flags…it was clear that there were two to three times as many Maoist supporters compared to the other parties put together. I discounted this as being a regional artifact, too, but it has turned out to be a national phenomenon. What this means is the Condie Rice and the US State Dept has egg all over their faces. For two years now the Maoists not only put down their weapons, but they cantoned their troops in deplorable conditions (while Nepali forces continued to receive pay, housing in barracks, training and supplies). The Maoists have signed and followed out agreements as best as can be expected for a loosely run guerilla army. They have accepted UN and HR inspectors, joined the government of Nepal as a legitimate political party, and actively and positively participated in the government. The whole while, even today nine days after the election, the US still has not retracted labeling the Maoist Party as a “terrorist organization.” What this means at this point is that the Maoists are about to become the ruling party of Nepal, and Nepal could rightfully be labeled a “terrorist nation,” making them part of the “Evil Empire,” on par with Iran and North Korea. The Maoists are not the Taliban and Prachandra is not Osama bin Ladin! Rather than being holed up in a cave or otherwise totally inaccessible, Prachandra is about to be filmed and interviewed by a friend of mine from Grand Rapids for a documentary. Jimmy Carter both last year and again this past week has called on the Bush Administration to drop the “terrorist label.”

It is clear to all that of hundreds of thousands of Americans abroad who has been put in danger by our foreign policy since 9-11. I have done my best to not take a political stance, and I was very impressed at how cordial and helpful the embassy was to me a few years ago when my passport was stolen. I think they work hard and try to do their best. But I now realize that our government’s ineptitude from on high has a very deleterious effect on our personal safety that can poison those in the trenches. The Embassy bombings in Africa are but one example. So, the administration has invested billions of dollars to build new fortified embassies throughout the world. But that doesn’t help me.

Every American trekking or working in Nepal has been directly endangered by U.S. policy that propped up an unpopular King who usurped power from a duly elected government 5 years ago. In addition, the Bush Administration began supplying M16s to the King’s Army under the pretext that this is a necessary part of the war against international terrorism. To do so, meant that the administration had to label the Maoists as “international terrorists.” This directly endangered hundreds of Americans trekking in the mountains, and to some extent even in the cities. Fortunately, the Maoists carried out a 10-year war without killing one American (maybe not even injuring one)! Not only did the “terrorist label” restrict me from talking with Maoists (“cavorting with the enemy”) about our children in village schools, but I was compelled to pose as a French doctor to make it past Maoist blockades in order to do the oversight on our schools. Where an American would be sent back, “the French Dr. Clouseau” was allowed to pass. I would probably not have been harmed, but I don’t know what would have happened to Som and Dipendra for allegedly conspiring with “an undercover agent,” and the American Embassy would have had a hell of a job trying to disprove Maoist charges that I was a CIA spy!

I don’t mind trying to explain or lamely defend our country’s contorted foreign policy to every left-leaning Nepali (and most are), nor that I have to apologize to every European, Aussie and Kiwi I meet here in Nepal of our government’s blatant ignorance (Remember when none of our senior administrative officials, when queried, couldn’t explain the difference between a Sunni and Shiite!). But today was the last straw! In an interview with George Stephanoupoulos for ABC television, Stephen Hadley, President Bush’s security advisor, consistently mistook Nepal for Tibet! Hadley stated, “The way to deal with the issue of Nepal is not by….not going to the opening ceremonies [of the Beijing Olympics].” Hadley did not simply misspeak—the White House later had to admit, “Mr. Hadley referred at least a half-dozen times to Nepal when he seemed clearly to be speaking of Tibet.” This man is our President’s security advisor? No wonder our Embassy can’t get it right: the State Department doesn’t know up from down because the White House is totally unaware of any events in Nepal.

Now then, everyone knows that our President cannot read a map (admittedly I can’t operate a GPS without Mary Jane), but that simply makes for good material for the Tonight Show. However, when his security advisor cannot read a map either and is expressing views about a region he obviously knows next to nothing, including a country (Nepal!) that is strategically positioned between India and China, the world’s two most populous countries, both armed to the teeth with nukes, I am not just worried, I am scared to death!

I don’t know how much of this story was covered on CNN or in the US newspapers, but since I read it in the Katmandu Post (April 18, top of page 2), then not only did every expat in Nepal read it, you can be sure that it was also carried by the International Herald Tribune, Le Monde, Die Welt, and the Asahi Shimbun. We should all be embarrassed, indignant, and scared! Homeland Security is of little consequence if we keep making more needless enemies overseas. I can just picture some American traveling in the Southern Terai of Nepal (like me starting tomorrow) being held hostage for ransom by right wing fundamentalist Hindus who just want to make a buck, and our government thinking, or under the pretext, that these are Maoists, send in the marines to topple the government. In case you think I am exaggerating, remember the American students we presumably rescued because there were Cubans in Granada! As Som, Chanak and I set out today into areas of unrest and violence, I fear not so much our personal safety as I the fear that our state department might compound a situation as a result of the 3 I’s: Indifference, Ignorance, and Incompetence at the highest level of our government. If America continues to misread and miscalculate the events abroad, the 2 I’s, the Ignominy of Iraq, will be repeated again and again.

So, will some of you please inform the President, his security advisor, and Condie that there were historic elections in Nepal this week and the Beijing Olympics is the last thing on Nepali minds! And please tell them that the “Maoists” is an outdated label. Nepali Maoists regard themselves more as “Deng Xiao-ping-ists” and support capitalism, economic development and foreign assistance, and want to promote good relations internationally. But more than Deng and the People’s Republic of China, the Nepali Maoists support multiparty democracy, coalition governance and continue to play a major role in transforming Nepal from a monarchy to a republic.