Nepalese enthusiastically prepare for polls

The new assembly will write a constitution, a key demand of former Maoist rebels.

Binod Joshi/AP
Nepalese supporters of the Congress party attended a campaign rally in Kathmandu, Nepal as political parties were busy making last minute appeals to supporters on the last day of campaigning before the election on Thursday, APril 10. An assembly will be picked to rewrite the constitution.

Two years after forcing King Gyanendra to hand over executive powers to mainstream parties, Nepalese will elect an assembly April 10 that they hope will conclude a peace process with former Maoist rebels, whose 10-year insurgency killed more than 13,000.

An elected assembly, which will write a new constitution, was a key demand of the Maoists, who ended their war in 2006 and are now part of the interim parliament and interim government.

The polls – postponed twice last year – has taken on the spirit of a festival, despite being marred by four explosions over the past five days. Flags are flying from motorcycles and bicycles and thousands have gathered to hear candidates speak.

But analysts caution that the postelection period will be a challenging one. The Maoists may fare poorly, as they do not have a strong political base and there is resentment against their past violence.

"A poor election result for the Maoists, which is almost certain, can put pressure on their leadership to quit the peace process and possibly resume war," says Krishna Khanal, a political analyst at Nepal's largest university, the Tribhuvan University.

Coupled with their past atrocities, the Maoists' lack of electoral experience could also cost them dearly, analysts say.

This is the first time Maoist chairman Puspa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, or "The Fierce One," and an overwhelming majority of his party comrades are standing in an election. During the last national election held in 1999, the Maoists were underground, fighting a war.

The assembly will have a total of 601 members, 335 of whom will be elected by proportional electoral system, in which Nepalese vote for a party. Another 240 will be chosen by direct vote. The remaining 26 will be nominated by the prime minister.

Under the proportional electoral system, parties will get seats according to the percentage of votes they receive. There will be two sets of ballot papers – one for the direct vote and one for the proportional system.

The proportional system might not play to the Maoists' advantage, analysts say, as their strong areas are the remote hills, which are sparsely populated. And the Maoists, who joined the interim parliament in 2007 as the second-largest party, may not be comfortable with a small presence in the elected assembly, analysts say.

Former leader Prachanda is running from a constituency in Kathmandu and one in Rolpa district, the cradle of the Maoist insurgency. While his victory in Rolpa is almost certain, he is an outsider in Kathmandu, which is a stronghold of Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML).

And of the 240 candidates fielded by the Maoists for the directly elected seats in the assembly, only a handful participated in any election in the past.

The Maoist leadership tried to forge an electoral alliance with the CPN-UML, the second-largest party in Nepal's parliament in all past elections since 1990. The two parties negotiated last month to withdraw each other's candidates in a number of constituencies so that the communist vote is not divided, but failed to reach agreement.

"In the event Maoists fare poorly in the election, the hard-liners in the party may pressure the leadership to abandon the peace process," Mr. Khanal says. "But it is unlikely that the whole party may give in to that pressure, derailing the entire peace process. The most likely scenario is that a section of Maoist cadres might lose patience and resort to their violent ways."

Sensing poor support during campaigning, Prachanda has upped his rhetoric, charging that international forces, especially the United States and India, are plotting to defeat his party in the election.

But Prachanda, who resisted pressure from hard-liners to quit the parliament and government and start a revolt during the party's plenary session in Kathmandu last year, has also promised that his party would accept the people's verdict.

Subodh Pyakurel, chairman of Informal Sector Service Center, the leading human rights nongovernmental organization in the country, says that despite possible post-election disappointment in Maoist ranks, party leadership will not be in a position to go against the people's mandate.

"The international community will be watching. Over 100,000 observers will be monitoring the election," Mr. Pyakurel says. "It will be hard for the Maoists to argue that there was a plot to defeat them. They might express reservations or level charges of poll-rigging, but won't be able to entirely reject the results."

According to Pyakurel, it is the Maoists who may try to manipulate poll results. "There are many hilly constituencies where the Maoists have not allowed opposition candidates to campaign.... They may not allow voters of oppositions parties to reach polling centers in such constituencies to cast their votes," he says.

In that case, the observers will pressure the Election Commission to conduct a revote in affected constituencies, he adds.

Many observers credit interim Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala with handling the Maoists carefully, allowing the election to be postponed last year and supporting the Maoist demand that the elected assembly declare the country a republic in its first meeting. Also important, they say, was his government's choice to deal with the upheavals as a political problem, not a security one.

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First task: formally abolish monarchy

The first Item on the agenda of the elected assembly will be to formally end the country's 240-year monarchy.

In December 2007, Nepal's interim parliament passed a resolution by an overwhelming majority to formally end the monarchy by the first sitting of the elected assembly.

All major political parties and most of the smaller ones are participating in the election with a republican manifesto.

"No one can retain the monarchical tradition now," said Ishwor Pokharel, senior leader of CPN-UML.

There has been little opposition to the policy switch to a republic by Nepal's more experienced parties, such as Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala's Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML.

The only party that is contesting in the election with a pro-monarchy manifesto is the National Democratic Party-Nepal. Even its president, Kamal Thapa, who was home minister in the king's cabinet during the peaceful uprising in April 2006, admits it is now difficult to retain the institution of monarchy.

But he warns that political parties have fallen into a trap set by the Maoists. "The Maoists want the monarchy to be abolished so that there is no alternative force that could, backed by the Army, counter a Maoist takeover in the future," he says.

According to Mr. Thapa, after finishing off the monarchy, the Maoists will gradually discredit and weaken the political parties. "A day will come when there will be no political force to resist a red takeover. The army will not be able to resist without a king at its helms. And the political parties do not have armed cadres," he said. "The Maoists, on the other hand, still have a very loyal guerrilla army at their disposal."