Barely two years after ending an armed insurgency that killed more than 13,000 people, Nepal's former Maoists rebels have stunned themselves, the Nepalese people, and the world with a landslide win in constituent assembly elections that could profoundly change Nepali politics.
The goal of last Thursday's election was to fulfill two Maoist demands: write a new Constitution and end the country's 240-year monarchy. But concerns are growing that Nepal's moderate political parties – which coaxed the Maoists into mainstream politics and forgave past atrocities in the interests of peace – might be sidelined and a more radical agenda prevail.
What matters now, analysts say, is how the Maoists themselves interpret the will of Nepalis. "If they take this as an endorsement of their policy of mass annihilation of class enemies, it will be a catastrophe," says Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of Newsfront weekly. "If they take this as people's recognition of them as the key agent of change, it will be easy for Maoists to work and good for the country as well."
By late Monday, the Maoists had won in 112 of 202 constituencies where counting of the direct vote had concluded. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala's Nepali Congress, which has dominated politics for six decades, had won just 32 seats, while the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN-UML) had won 28 seats. Another 335 seats are allocated proportionally according to each party's percentage of votes, and the remaining 26 members of the 601-member assembly will be nominated by the government. Vote counting for the proportional seats is under way.
International and national election monitors hailed the polls as a success. But reports of intimidation surfaced, with Maoists warning rural, poorly educated voters that they would be watching the polling booths and would know who voted for whom. Mr. Ghimire also argues that voters were terrified by the Maoist threat of going back to war in case of defeat.
But another factor in the Maoists' strong showing may have been the perception that they hewed to a consistent agenda – forming a republic – while the leading Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal shifted toward the Maoist agenda as it became more politically expedient.
"The CPN-UML went to the election with an identity crisis," says political analyst Krishna Hatchetu. "The CPN-UML gradually became less left since they joined multiparty politics after mass protests in 1990. In this election, the pro-left voters had the choice to vote between the CPN-UML and the radical Maoists. The people chose the Maoists."
The crushing defeat of his party prompted CPN-UML General Secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal to resign Sunday from the post he had held for 15 years. The former CPN-UML chieftain was also humiliated by his defeat in Katmandu by a little-known Maoist candidate.
A majority of top leaders from the Nepali Congress, including four relatives of the prime minister and powerful ministers in the current cabinet, also were defeated, mostly by Maoist candidates. The casualties included the party's acting president, Sushil Koirala, who announced his resignation.
The two parties made a policy switch from "constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy" to "federal democratic republic" last year after sensing overwhelming support for a republic during the peaceful uprising in April 2006 that forced King Gyanendra to relinquish executive authorities he grabbed in a military coup in 2005.
Despite their stunning victory, the days ahead might not be easy for the Maoists, analysts say, especially as they will now have to deliver on tall promises, including swift economic transformation.
"The people have given legitimacy to the Maoists," says C.K. Lal, a noted political columnist. "But they have yet to get acceptance. And remember, there is only a prefix that separates legitimacy and illegitimacy."
So far, the Maoists have indicated that they understand the people's message.
Speaking during a rally after his victory from a constituency in Katmandu this weekend, Prachanda, the leader of the Maoists, promised that his party would continue to work with other political parties, strengthen relations with the international community, and shoulder the responsibility entrusted by the people to build lasting peace.
The party's chief ideologue, Baburam Bhattarai, who is the most likely prime ministerial candidate from the party, said on Sunday that the new government "that will be formed under our leadership" will have participation from all parties represented in the constituent assembly. Mr. Bhattarai's wife, Hisila Yami, was declared the winner in her constituency.
But analysts say the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, with an eye on the next election, might opt to sit in opposition and let the Maoists try to deliver without any support from them, something that could hinder legislative efforts.
Among immediate challenges the Maoists will face after forming a government is ensuring a smooth supply of fuel without making the unpopular decision of raising fuel prices. For the past year, the state-owned Nepal Oil Corp. has borne heavy losses as a result of the disparity between local prices of fuel and international prices. And Indian Oil Corp., the monopoly supplier of fuel to Nepal, has regularly cut supplies in a bid to force payment.
Also, the Maoists will have to help solve the country's current power shortages, which leave Nepalese without electricity for eight hours each day.
The interim constitution says the elected assembly will have to come up with a constitution within two years, after which a general election must be held for a government that will sit for five years.