April 6, 2008
It’s been raining here off and on all day. Although you can’t see them, you can hear an unfamiliar presence of helicopters thrumming above the Kathmandu Valley. While tourists bunch for shots in front of Newari palaces, aircraft carrying armed police personnel conduct aerial patrols for signs of pre-election discord within the city.
Although the narrow streets of Thamel, (Kathmandu’s central tourist hangout), are still choked with backpackers and other visitors, it’s predicted that there will be a striking exodus of foreigners beginning tomorrow. Only yesterday, the U.S. Embassy in Nepal issued the following security announcement:
In the run-up to the Constituent Assembly elections scheduled for April 10, the Government of Nepal has taken certain steps which will affect the ability of American citizens to receive services and to move freely throughout the country. … In addition, the government will close Nepal’s land borders for three days (April 8-10) and has imposed a transportation ban for all vehicular movement throughout the country starting the evening of April 9 through election day, April 10. Only vehicles with government issued passes will be allowed to travel on the roads. Domestic flights will also be grounded on April 10.
The U.S. Embassy will be closed on April 10 and only essential personnel will be reporting for duty on that day. All other personnel have been instructed by the Regional Security Officer to remain in their homes on April 10. American citizens living and traveling in Nepal are strongly encouraged to stay off the streets during election day and to exercise extreme caution in the days before and after the election, as the potential for demonstrations and increased violence between competing political parties exists. American citizens are strongly urged to avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place.
Today’s local newspapers are equally cautionary. Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, Maoist Central Committee leader and “Head of the People’s Governance Council” addressed an election rally in Kaski yesterday, warning that people would seize power within ten minutes of the announcement of poll results if Maoists were defeated through rigging of the elections. (For my previous interviews with Dr. Bhattarai, scroll down.)
Meanwhile, the Maoists’ Youth Communist League (YCL) has kept up its physical attacks on candidates and supporters of rival parties. Thuggish clashes have been reported in numerous districts, as well as a YCL abduction of a UML leader on Friday. But to be fair to the Maoists, other political parties’ youth groups have been guilty of aggravated assault against Maoists, events that seem to get far less ink in the local newspapers. In terms of the intermittent disruptions, there is plenty of blame to go around.
To answer the threat of interference of free elections, approximately 135,000 police are being deployed to polling booths in Nepal's 240 constituencies. The promise from the government is that if the election process crumbles into chaos, the Election Commission will cancel the vote and set a date for re-polling.
Expecting the worse, at least 55,000 temporary police have been recruited to supplement existing forces. But like everything else about the impending elections, this beefing up seems quite rushed: The temporary police were given a mere two weeks training. They look very young with their bamboo sticks.
As for election day, Nepal has banned alcohol and the use of public and private transport for 24 hours to keep security tight and to prevent trouble makers from quickly moving between polling stations.
Special passes will be given for the vehicles on urgent duty, which will include my transportation: I will have a car to drive from poll to poll, once I arrive in southern Terai. I and my assistant, Govida, have been assigned three districts to cover in one day.
On this rainy day, there seem to be two prevailing and diametrically opposed opinions about the success of the impending elections. One is that they will be a catastrophe. The other is that, in spite of widespread intimidation, the voters will turn out in record numbers, perhaps as high as 70%.