April 5, 2008
While American newspapers scour and dissect every phrase our presidential candidates speak or “misspeak”, Nepalese journalists concern themselves with more fundamental issues surrounding their upcoming national elections, to be held in four days.
From today’s Kathmandu papers:
“An agreement has been reached to deploy the army during the polls if killings and abductions continue,” said Shyam Sundar Gupta, Minister for Industry, Commerce and Supplies.
“Four bomb blasts in Kathmandu Valley.”
“At least 10 persons were injured when UML cadres clashed with Maoists…Police fired bullets in the air to take the situation under control.”
“25 hurt in Maoists attacks in Dhading.”
“Six blasts in Kapilvastu.
“The election Commission has decided to disqualify 299 candidates on five grounds: First 66 candidates from 28 political parties were underage. Second, over 184 candidates from 21 parties had failed to submit their citizenship certificates. Third…”
The chaotic, hopeful, dread-ridden, excited atmosphere was evident immediately upon my arrival in the nation’s capital yesterday afternoon. My first stop after the airport was the office of the National Elections Observation Committee (NEOC), not far from Nagpokhari (Snake Pond) and the Nepalese Police Headquarters. I met the Secretary General of NEOC, Dr. Gopal Krishna Siwakoti, who has been working around the clock to help set stage for national and international observers of the elections. “We have had only 34 days to put all of this in order. Not much advance warning. Usually these things take months to organize. But we’ve somehow managed – even with eight-hour power cutoffs per day. Apart from approximately 13,000 national observers, 20 international observers have already been trained and deployed in the field. And 50 more international observers will go out to various districts on the 8th and 9th of April.”
I will be a member of the latter group. As an observer, I will travel to Biratnagar, the second largest city in Nepal in the far southeast, abutting the Indian border where much of the agitation in the last year has taken place. Last week, for instance, the Choti Jame mosque in Biratnagar was bombed by an insurgent group called the Defense Army Nepal, reported to be a Hindu fundamentalist organization.
Nepal has always been an imaginative country that, under the shadow of the Himalayan range, sustains itself, at least partially, on its own gossip. In the 24 hours since my arrival, here’s a sample of the rumors I’ve heard:
“The Maoists know how you will vote. They have such powerful binoculars that they can see where you mark on the ballot paper from the hills above the poll.”
“The Maoists have inserted computer chips within the ballot paper so that they will know who you voted for; later they will come and chop off your heads.”
“The king is laughing out loud from inside the palace walls because of the way the parties are fighting one another. He’s going to buy the elected representatives so that he can save the monarchy.”
“50% of the elected Nepali Congress representatives will back some form of the monarchy.”
“25% of the elected United Marxist Party representatives will back some form of the monarchy.”
“All the regional Madesh parties will vote to support the monarchy under pressure from the Hindu fundamentalists in India.”
“All the regional Madesh parties are the brainchild of the current Prime Minister, G.P. Koirala (Nepali Congress Party). Why did he create them? So that they can eliminate the Maoist presence in southern Nepal.”
If all of this sounds confusing, it should be pointed out that there are 54 registered parties vying for seats in the Constituent Assembly that will write a new constitution for the country. To further confound understanding, there are two electoral systems to be used simultaneously: “First Pass the Poll” (whoever gets the most votes is the winner,) and the “Proportional Representation” system.
Nepal has gone through tremendous upheaval since the 1950s when its borders were opened to the outside world. The beginnings of democratic ambitions were evident even as Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Nepal’s most famous landmark, Mt. Everest. But democracy doesn’t happen over night. It didn’t happen over night in the United States and it’s not happening here in Nepal, one of the ten poorest countries in the world. If Nepal has anything going for it, it’s the amazing resilience of its people.
In a few generations, Nepalis have broken the chains of a feudal monarchy, have experienced fleeting flirtations with free elections, stumbled through parliamentarian corruption and ineptitude, been forced to return to autocratic rule, survived a 10 year civil war between monarchists and Maoists, and now, finally, created for itself – some might say against all odds – an opportunity to pen a constitution that will pave the way for a society that truly represents the people’s aspirations and fundamental rights.
No matter what happens in the next few weeks, Nepal is at a starting point. Even if the elections prove to be fair, it may not be enough to create a democracy that works for Nepal’s unique multi-cultural, religious and political traits, at least in the near future. The struggle will be long, sustainable only if the spirit of democracy prevails.
I’ve been instructed that, in the next few days, my primary duty as an international observer is to keep an open mind. It will be interesting to see if my upcoming postings reflect that.