April 10, 2008
For one day the abrasive bleating of car horns vanished. In its place came the silent will of the people, on foot, walking to polling booths with a desire and enthusiasm that built on itself throughout the day.
When the polls closed at 5:pm, there was a nation-wide exhalation of relief and even giddiness. The people had surprised themselves and the world. Voting turnout was over 60%. Out of 20,889 polling stations dotting Nepal -- the most topographically challenging country in the world -- only 33 polling stations had been closed due to voting irregularities. The prevalence of armed police reassured the public – a welcome change after 10 years of civil and military strife. In fact, the low level of violence became the hallmark of Election Day.
To be sure, there were irregularities reported and, in my case, personally observed: wine shops open even though there was a ban: polling officials who had been intimidated and even briefly abducted the day before; a voter I photographed at the booth who couldn’t have been more than fourteen years of age. But the overall feeling was that law and order had prevailed.
And if one thinks about it, the logistical hurdles overcome were truly inspiring. As a Western observer, I wondered how many Americans would have walked kilometers over rocky paths or empty sun-baked highways in order to place their vote in a national election? Technically, the voting may have seemed rudimentary. Although an electronic voting system had been set up in one constituency in Kathmandu as a trial test, many more ballot boxes were transported to respective regional headquarters on oxen carts. But in the end, what mattered was that the people of Nepal carried it off.
Photos by Mikel Dunham:
BUT WHAT COMES NEXT?
On Election Day, I canvassed three districts – Morang, Sunsari and Dhankuta, all in far southeastern Nepal – pinpointing various polling stations that had experienced tampering in the past. I also examined a station, set up exclusively for the Armed Police Force (APF). I began at 6:30am at sea level (near the Indian border) and gradually ascended to hilly regions of 3000-plus feet, where the southern fringe of tea plantations rolled northeast to Darjeeling. Along the way, poll officials’ optimistic reports gained momentum. “No incidents.” “Everything peaceful, very peaceful.”
But as the sun began to drop in the west and I motored down toward the plains of Biratnagar, I had cause to wonder if my impressions hadn’t been a bit too rosy.
In the district capital of Dhankuta, I got a phone call urging me to make a detour to the regional hospital in Darang, where Ganga Das, a 38-year-old had been ambulanced after a critical beating at the polling station in Bhutaha. I arrived at the hospital too late. Ganga had died. The police officer in charge debriefed me. Ganga had no political alliance. Nevertheless, minutes after casting his vote, he unwittingly walked into a street skirmish between opposing party supporters of Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), Nepali Congress and MPRF (the largest of the Madeshi parties.) The fatal blow to Ganga’s head was delivered by a lathi (bamboo stick) from an assailant unknown.
My car continued south. By dark, my assistant, the driver and I drove down the empty streets of Itahari, a medium-sized town. We were forced to slow and finally halt by a group of young thugs, approximately 25 in number. There was no security anywhere. These young guys, smitten and decked out in punk rock accoutrements – spiky hair (one bleached blond), black T-shirts (one with “Ramones” blazoned across the front), and earrings and pierced eyebrows. Once they realized that they had pulled over an international observer vehicle, they waved us on. Clearly not everyone in Nepal was happy that night about the peaceful results of the elections.
We approached Biratnagar around 8:45pm. Again the streets were dark and empty. We slowed down while passing a squad of armed police facing off with townspeople packing a sidewalk along closed shops. We sped on. It was only after arriving at the hotel that I learned that it was not a confrontation with the police, but rather the safe retrieval of an unexploded bomb.
APRIL 11, 2008
The process toward a representational government has just begun in Nepal. Election Day was a good beginning. But this morning’s newspapers featured a full-length advisory from the Election Commission about the arduous road to making final calculations of the voting: final tabulation might be as long as three weeks from now. Clearly it was up to the people – the same people who had behaved so admirably on Election Day – to shift gears into patience.
And what about the people who had opposed the elections? How likely was patience from them?
By mid-morning today, I was already hearing a variety of rumors and recriminations and breaking news items: captured polling booths in many districts; Maoists youths making trouble in a town I had visited only the day before; a ballet box dumped into a river in Dhading late last night; representative-hopeful Sujata Koirala (the Prime Minister’s daughter) blaming the Home Minister (from the same party as Sujata) for tampering with her constituency; a bombing in Birgunj; ballot boxes being sent to wrong districts; ballot boxes that arrived at regional headquarters with nothing inside – the list, some since verified, goes on an on. By late afternoon, the number of polling stations that had been invalidated rose from 33 too 60.
An international observer has limited value. As I play back reports given to me by various polling officials, I wonder how many were telling me the complete truth. Nepalis seem to agree that, on the local level, officials just want the elections to be over. The last thing they want is a second voting due to irregularities. And there is also this: Particularly in the remote areas, officials who have been intimidated or threatened by opposing groups aren’t very likely to spill the beans to a foreigner. It is their families that they worry about – their loved ones, who might face retribution long after the international observers have returned to the safety of their own homes.