Yesterday, in their droves, the people of Nepal voted for an end to politics as they once were. Some trudged for days through mountain paths to reach polling booths, others lined up for hours on deserted streets, braving threats of violence from extremist groupsyet, by day's end, nearly 65% of the nation's voting population had exercised their franchise. Politicians of all factions proudly strutted before the ballot box, wreathed in flower garlands, sporting triumphant smiles. They were all participating in a process that aims to replace Nepal's 240-year-old monarchy with a secular republica transition that, although turbulent, has given this impoverished nation of 27 million newfound optimism.
Many foreign observers feared these electionspostponed twice alreadywould fail. Nepal is a country still in the shadow of a bloody decade-long civil war fought between Maoist rebels and the monarchy's security forces, interrupted, albeit briefly, by the 2001 massacre of eleven members of the royal family allegedly at the hands of the king's own son. A peace deal brokered two years ago brought the remnants of the monarchy to its knees and the Maoists into the political mainstream, but efforts to further the process along have been marred throughout by political squabbling and vigilante violence. In the run-up to yesterday's elections, at least 60 people were killed. Reports filtered in every day of bombings, kidnappings, and armed thugsespecially from the Young Communist League, a Maoist youth wingrunning riot.
But the sense of dread that haunted Nepal's trek to the polls is fading fast. "The mood is almost euphoric," says Kunda Dixit, editor of the English-language Nepali Times and a prominent democracy advocate. More than half of the registered electorate in Kathmandu voted in just the first few hours of polling. Despite a scattering of incidentsone candidate was gunned down, an eight others were killed in factional fightingonly 33 of 20,882 voting stations nationwide reported that polling was disrupted.
But, however satisfied citizens may be that the election came off, results won't be known for three weeksand only then will the real work of nation-building begin. The elections will determine the composition of a 601-member Constituent Assembly, charged with drafting the new constitution of the Nepalese republic. In theory, the moment this body assembles, the monarchy will be forever abolished. But there are doubts the institution, which has defined the Nepalese state for centuries, will simply vanish.
And then there are the Maoists whose youth cadres are responsible for much of the lawlessness that has plagued parts of the country. The Maoist leader, still known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, insists they are committed to multi-party democracy, but some Kathmandu insiders believe the former rebels will balk at an election defeat. The Maoists consider themselves the chief catalysts of Nepal's transformation; recently, Prachanda declared to reporters that the path to a republic was "our agenda alone."
Whoever the political victors are, all of Nepal's parties face far greater challenges than consolidating power. The restive lowland plains that border India still smolder with ethnic unrest. Nepal's economy is a shambles: fuel shortages routinely paralyze the country, while more than a third of the population lives below the poverty line. The country's pitiful growth rate hovers barely over 2 percent as unprecedented numbers of Nepalese are quitting the country for jobs in the Gulf, India and Southeast Asia. An estimated 10,000 women who leave each year end up as sex workers in Indian brothels, and that number is now skyrocketing.
"The people of Nepal don't really care about a republic or a monarchy," says Dixit, the Nepali Times editor. Instead, they want an end to rancorous politicking. They want a concerted program for development and the creation of new jobs within the country. A new Nepalese government also must attend to the hard, yet inescapable reality of the trauma left behind by years of civil war. Reconciliation and reconstruction is the sole agenda that the voting public cares about. It'll be up to the country's garlanded leaders to deliver.
With reporting by Yubaraj Ghimire/Kathmandu