ALTHOUGH no definite date has been set for Nepal's first multiparty elections in more than 30 years, campaigning has started. In towns and villages throughout this mountainous, Himalayan kingdom, politicians have been trekking across hazardous terrain to get their message to the voters. Many Nepalese have walked for up to three days to attend rallies and get their first taste of democracy.
``We are all keen to participate in the elections. Politics in this country is now among the people and we must take this opportunity,'' said a local resident of Gajuri village, who was attending an election rally by the Nepali Congress Party (NPC), Nepal's oldest and most-established political party.
Nepal's pro-democracy protests in April overthrew the Panchayat system, in which political parties were banned and elected representatives had no decisionmaking role. All power resided in Nepal's King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev. After the April protests, the king agreed to become a constitutional monarch. On Nov. 9, he formally handed over power to Nepal's 19 million people when he promulgated a new Constitution. It guarantees multiparty democracy, elections, and freedom of the press.
But the multiparty coalition that led pro-democracy movement is already showing signs of splitting. The NPC had joined an assortment of communist groups to push for democracy. Despite pleas by the communists to maintain the coalition, hard-liners within the NPC are demanding its demise.
``We will not fight an election with the communists. This honeymoon with them should end at once,'' says Girija Prasad Koirala, general secretary of the NPC. Congress Party workers have used promotional video tapes about the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe to lure voters. This has already led to bloody clashes with the communists, with rallies and party offices being attacked.
And vestiges of the old order are still part of the political picture. Two major parties contesting the elections are composed of upper-caste landlords who were former representatives of the Panchayat system with close connections to King Birendra. In a country steeped in mysticism and feudalism with a 70 percent illiteracy rate, traditional loyalties of rural Nepalese have not changed drastically. The new Constitution still acknowledges the king as ruler and Hinduism as the state religion.
April's pro-democracy movement was composed mainly of the educated classes, who make up only 8 percent of the population, and was concentrated in only seven of Nepal's 75 districts.
``The relation between the old feudal classes and the illiterate poor is still strong. The rural people of Nepal are very traditional and will vote according to what the local landlord says,'' said Harka Gurung of the New Era Research Institute in Kathmandu.
The NPC's Mr. Koirala says, ``We have a long way to go, and the future is still uncertain. Our first aim will be to consolidate democracy.''