After Years of Political Turmoil, Nepal Busily Prepares for Vote

By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 22, 2008

KATHMANDU, Nepal -- A dusty white truck with loudspeakers bolted on its roof trundled along in heavy traffic on a rutted downtown street, blaring its support for one of the nearly 6,000 candidates in Nepal's first nationwide elections in nearly two decades. It swerved to avoid colliding with a blue campaign van headed in the opposite direction, banners streaming from its sides.

After two false starts following a decade of insurgency that claimed an estimated 14,000 lives and left this nation the poorest in the world outside Africa, Nepal is heady with democratic politics. Voters go to the polls April 10 to elect 601 members of a constituent assembly tasked with writing a constitution that will define a new Nepal.

"If we don't take this election, we cannot see any future for the country," said Jaya Prakash Pokhrel, 35, an assistant hotel manager. "Everyone is taking part in the politics now, and we can just hope for something new, something better."

Nestled at the foot of the Himalayas, Nepal conjures an almost mythic image for adventurers, while its strategic location between China and India adds pressure to an already unstable political base.

Its transition from the world's last Hindu monarchy to a parliamentary government has been long and bloody. Its first attempt at democracy was in 1950, but for more than five decades, the king and parliament engaged in power plays that sapped the country. The political turmoil was punctuated in 2001 when the crown prince gunned down 10 members of the royal family, including the king, before shooting himself.

Meanwhile, Nepal's communist party, known as the Maoists, had broken away from the government in 1996 and begun an insurgency that it called a "people's war." Both the Maoists and the Nepalese government have engaged in human rights abuses, including torture and recruiting children as soldiers, according to Amnesty International.

The Maoists signed a peace accord in 2006 and agreed to join in the government, with the promise of free elections as the centerpiece of the agreement. Two previous attempts at holding elections were scuttled, but now the country is on track to vote next month.

"Nepal has lost at least a decade of development progress because of the conflict," said Nick Langton, a Kathmandu-based country representative for the Asia Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that supports government and economic reforms. "The election is a huge opportunity to restructure the government, to take it out of centuries of feudalism and into the future."

As scattered violence continues, some people here question whether free and fair elections are possible in Nepal.

After midnight Wednesday, a candidate in a district 300 miles southeast of Kathmandu was shot several times in his bed by masked gunmen, police said. Kamal Prasad Adhikari, a member of the National People's Front Nepal, a small communist party, died in the hospital a few hours later. Police have arrested two suspects, but no group has asserted responsibility for the attack.

Armed groups calling for autonomy for Nepal's southern Terai region, on the Indian border, have threatened to stage attacks and disrupt the vote.

On Sunday, pro-Maoist activists reportedly fired shots and threw stones at a rival party's campaign march in eastern Nepal. "Doubtless, they intended to kill us," said Lila Dahal, a Nepali Congress official who was injured in the attack, according to the Himalayan Times.

Maoists have been accused of several other attacks on candidates across the country, and on Tuesday a Maoist group was accused of charging a police post after rival candidates fled inside for protection. For their part, the Maoists accused police in another area of threatening to open fire on locals if they did not vote for the Nepali Congress party.

The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal has called on all parties to respect the right of candidates and voters to take part in the process without fear. About 500 international observers have signed up to monitor polling places on election day, when 54 political parties will be fielding candidates.

One candidate being watched closely is the Maoist chairman, known as Prachanda, who led the insurgency and is now maneuvering for a top position in the new government. He called himself the "president in people's heart" at a campaign rally on Tuesday. "No one should be scared of me if I become a real president. I am committed to take everyone along with me during my presidency," he said.

What some analysts fear is not a Prachanda presidency, which they say is a long shot, but rather that the Maoists won't fare well in the elections and therefore will pull out and take up arms. "They were in a fight for 10 years," said Pokhrel, the hotel assistant manager. "They still have instincts to fight."

Former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress party has vowed he will succeed Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, 83, who has announced plans to step down after the vote.

Rishi Dhamala, chairman of the Reporter's Club of Nepal, said much is left to be done to ensure a successful vote. But once that occurs, most people expect the first act of the constituent assembly will be to abolish the monarchy. "After the election, a new Nepal has a clearer picture," Dhamala said.

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