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Nepal’s Maoist landslide

About the author
Prashant Jha is a political analyst and commentator with the Nepali Times. He also writes for Himal South Asian and other publications
Prashant Jha is a political analyst and commentator with the Nepali Times. He also writes for Himal South Asian and other publications

The results of the general election in Nepal on 10 April 2008, won overwhelmingly by the Maoists - officially the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) - have come as a complete shock. Many people thought the former armed rebels would be a distant third, winning perhaps fifteen-to-twenty of the 240 seats directly elected to the constituent assembly under a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system (335 of the remainder are elected under proportional representation). Some argued that the Maoists would do better than conventional wisdom in the capital Kathmandu suggested, giving them about thirty-to-forty of the FPTP seats. Only a few voices sensed the people's desperate yearning for change, the Maoist base among the young and marginalised, and flagged the possibility of the party coming in second - or first.

Yet the outcome - with the Maoists taking 114 out of the 208 seats declared at the time of writing - has taken even the Maoists by surprise. Why did all of us get it so wrong? It is important that no elections had taken place since May 1999; recent voting patterns were thus non-existent, and it was difficult to make sense of a country that had completely changed over the past decade. An armed rebellion, a generational change, new leftwing politics, ethnic consciousness, and changing aspirations - all these should have complicated the easy predictions.Also in openDemocracy on politics and conflict in Nepal:

Anuj Mishra, "Nepal's war without end" (19 April 2005)

Manjushree Thapa, "Democracy in Nepal and the 'international community'" (3 May 2005)

Manjushree Thapa, "Nepal's political rainy season" (12 July 2005)

Anuj Mishra, "Nepal's war without end" (19 April 2005)

Chandra D Bhatta, "Nepal's civil war: from security to politics" (23 May 2005)

Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal's folly: talking absolutes at high altitude" (9 January 2006)

Kanak Mani Dixit & Maryann Bird, "Nepal: the underbelly of the beast" (12 April 2006)

Anuj Mishra, "Democracy from below: a grassroots revolution in Nepal" (23 April 2006)

Maya G Kumar, "Nepal on the brink" (24 April 2006)

Kanak Mani Dixit, "Nepal: the Maoist transformation's fuzzy logic" (22 June 2006)

Manjushree Thapa, "Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy" (14 September 2006)

Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal: Maocracy vs Democracy" (16 November 2006)

Anuj Mishra, "Nepal's peace accord: time for caution" (16 November 2006)

Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal's unsettling peace" (6 February 2007)

Manjushree Thapa, "Nepal: peace is more than an election" (29 November 2007)

It was thought too that the Nepali Congress (NC's) defunct party machine would as usual spring back into life at election time; that "traditional" voters, once they reached the polling booths, would instinctively vote for the "tree"; that established faces would be difficult to dislodge; and that the disarray among the Madhesi parties would prevent the demise of the NC in the Terai (or Tarai) region. The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [UML] was expected to do well because it had the best organisation, the support of the small-business class, and the supposedly more comfortable profile of being neither conservative like the NC nor radical and violent like the Maoists. The fact that civil society across the country is dominated by UML-type figures - who fed selective information to their listeners - did not help in gauging the true popular mood.

But no explanation can hide the fact that Kathmandu opinion-formers have been insular and disconnected from what is happening in the rest of the country. The results force us to re-examine some of our basic assumptions and the way we have viewed political changes over the past few years.

The politics of defeat

So how did the Maoists manage to defy all predictions? There was pre-electoral intimidation and violence, and a degree of electoral malpractice on 10 April. But that does not help explain the result.

At this stage, one positive and one negative factor can be identified. The Maoists' organisational experience was a vital factor. They had after all run a parallel state for ten years; they have the best mobilising skills, and the most committed and hard-working cadre.

The Maoist intellectual and politician Hisila Yami ("Comrade Parvati") told the Nepali Times three days before the polls: "We have people everywhere. There is an invisible network that is active now." That well-oiled invisible network was operating at full capacity in the run-up to the elections. The Maoists have been able to capitalise on the support of the marginalised and the angry who want change; how they channel this support, and deliver on promises will determine Nepal's future politics.

This is also an anti-incumbency vote, with the NC and the UML being seen as the key establishment parties. The Koirala dynasty, currently headed by prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala, has suffered an arguably irreversible setback. His daughter Sujata will find it tough to stage a political comeback, especially if her father is not around by the time of the next polls. Sushil Koirala's grip over the party machinery will weaken, and there is a possibility that the Deuba faction will emerge stronger.

The dynasty's distant relatives and family confidantes have not fared well either; Lila Koirala in Janakpur, Mahesh Acharya and Shekhar Koirala in Morang, and Chakra Prasad Bastola in Jhapa were all voted out. The Nepali Congress is set to lose the disproportionate share of power it has wielded in Kathmandu in the two years since the opening to democracy in April 2006 - a severe blow that will fall equally on the two men who have helped get the peace process this far; Krishna Prasad Sitaula (who was defeated by the Maoists) and Shekhar Koirala.

The UML, particularly its top leadership, has been routed. The party knows it has to engage in immediate self-examination to prevent its demoralised low-level cadre from switching allegiance to the Maoists, and to ensure that the Maoists do not succeed in monopolising the entire leftwing space. The UML will sooner or later have to confront a tough choice: whether to adopt a more confrontational relationship with the Maoists and move closer to the NC and the conservatives, or ally (albeit as a junior partner) with the Maoists.

The Terai results are trickling in slowly, making it difficult to interpret the overall verdict in the Madhesi region. The Maoists have done well in the hill-dweller pahadi pockets of Terai - and their smart selection of candidates, accurate caste calculations and constant engagement with the Dalit votebank have helped the rebels win some Madhesi seats as well. But the Madhesi parties themselves, especially the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), have taken the largest share. The brand recognition of the "Forum" (a better organised formation than the Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party [TMLP] and the Nepal Sadbhavana Party [SP]), familiar faces, the support of Yadavs and Tharus in many constituencies in eastern Terai - all these factors helped Upendra Yadav's men.

It is likely that the MJF will win fifty-to-sixty seats or even more once the proportional-representation component of the vote is finalised. Such a result will raise difficult questions: will the bitterly antagonistic Maoist-MJF relationship develop, and is there a possibility of a tactical relationship between the two on questions such as federalism?

The diplomats' disarray

India is in panic mode. Its emotional descent from the high of witnessing successful elections on the evening of the vote to the depression of the next day was steep. New Delhi's diplomats on the ground are completely taken aback, forced now both to answer their political leadership's questions on why they got it so wrong and to brainstorm about what to do next.

There is a danger that some in Delhi may be tempted to subvert the result, by attempting to stitch together a National Congress-UML-Madheshi forces alliance, thus resorting to manipulative politics in an effort to keep the Maoists out of office. But others know the dangers inherent in ganging up against the former rebels. This current wants to remain steady, believing there are enough balancing factors to prevent Maoists from rushing through their agenda.

The Maoists have so far been sober and responsible in their moment of victory. The cadre has not gone wild, and the leadership has made the right noises in reaching out to everyone, including acknowledging the prime minister's positive role in the peace process. Baburam Bhattarai, possibly in the running to be Girija Prasad Koirala's successor as prime minister, has said that decisions will be made in consultations with all other forces.

No one can question the popular legitimacy of the Maoists after this election. But that greatly enhances their responsibility. The onus now lies on the Maoists to lead their compatriots - within the national framework, in a non-violent manner, respecting fundamental democratic freedoms, and recognising regional and global realities - on the path to a new Nepal.


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