Former Maoist rebels in Nepal look set to seize power through the ballot box as the country awaits the final results of recent elections. The step will see a remarkable transition for a movement that led a 10-year insurgency that claimed up to 14,000 lives.
The group, still labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, has promised to abide by a multiparty democratic system. The Maoists' leader, known by his nom de guerre, Prachandra, which means "the fierce one," told reporters that the party was "committed to the peace process and multiparty democracy and to rebuild this country," reports the BBC.
Although the Maoists have not yet renounced violence, they will almost certainly now have to adjust from being a party of revolt to being a party at the heart of government.
Results from last Thursday's elections for a special assembly meant to write a new constitution and formally abolish the 240-year-old Hindu monarchy show the Maoists have won 83 of the 160 seats declared, according to election officials.
Despite their good showing so far, a complicated electoral system will make it difficult for them to win an absolute majority in the new assembly, charged also with running the country for at least two years.
While final results are still several weeks away, a Maoist victory is likely to spark significant political change in the mountain kingdom, says The Times of London:
If the Maoists emerge as the dominant force in the assembly, they will insist that it abide by a pre-election agreement to abolish the 240-year-old monarchy at its first meeting. They are also likely to demand a strong, executive presidency, occupied by Prachanda.
At the heart of the Maoist insurgency was a drive for greater social equality and the ousting of the monarchy.
King Gyanendra, who assumed power after a prince murdered the rest of the royal family in 2001, sacked his government and assumed absolute power in 2005. Subsequent antimonarchy demonstrations helped push opposition parties and the rebel Maoists together, and Gyanendra was forced to give up authoritarian rule. The following year the government and Maoists reached a peace agreement that ended the long and violent insurgency, comments the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR):
A peace deal between the Maoists and the government in November 2006 put an end to a decade-long civil war that had resulted in thousands of deaths and widespread human rights abuses by both the Maoists and the Nepalese security forces. According to Human Rights Watch, "Nepal ranks near the bottom of nearly all indexes of human well-being and development." The long-drawn conflict has left the country impoverished and "seriously hampered aid distribution, health care and education."
Nonetheless, the Maoists' popular support and election romp so soon after the peace deal has stunned observers, reports the Economic Times of India:
But for the moment, it's time for platitudes and euphoria. The magnitude of their own performance seems to have stunned even the Maoist leadership, [as well as] the local media and political observers.
Behind the numbers emerging from the Election Commission in Kathmandu is what observers and ordinary voters say is a resounding demand for sweeping change in the Himalayan nation and one of the world's poorest places….
"The Maoists had an election slogan: 'We have seen everyone else time and time again, lets see the Maoists' this time'," recounted 56-year-old Ganey Darai, a voter who gave the ex-rebels his backing.
"People have decided to take them up on their word, and see what they can do," said Darai, who earns less than a dollar a day hiring out weighing scales outside a hospital in Kathmandu.
While the elections were deemed "free and fair" by international observers – including former President Jimmy Carter – international governments face a dilemma in responding to the election says The Times of London:
The prospect also raises some international concerns, because the Maoists are still listed as terrorists by the United States and have threatened to tear up treaties with India and to abolish Britain's Gurkha Brigade.
The Himalayan News Service says only that the Maoists "would like to maintain friendly and cordial relations with friendly countries."
Moreover, the CFR says the election could usher in further instability:
Social unrest and the growing discontent of marginalized ethnic groups loom ahead. The Foreign and Commonwealth office of the United Kingdom takes note of protests and rioting in southern Nepal in late 2006 and early 2007: "A number of people were killed during clashes with the Police. Protestors defied curfews, and vandalized government offices." Moreover, the fate of thousands of armed Maoist guerrilla fighters remains uncertain.