/ 14 April 2008

Former rebels on brink of historic Nepal election victory

Former communist rebels in Nepal appear to be on the brink of a historic sweep in elections that will decide the political future of the Himalayan nation and end the rule of its 239-year-old royal dynasty.

The Maoists’ party has won 42 seats and is leading in 58 constituencies, the election commission said in a statement on its website. The traditional politicians, who had expected to win the polls, have been reduced to bit-part players.

The country’s oldest and biggest political party, the Nepali Congress, has so far won 13 seats and the Unified Marxist-Leninists, the traditional communist party, had just 14 seats in the latest count.

The vote is the culmination of a peace process that began in 2006 when street protests ended the absolute rule of King Gyanendra.

In the political deal that followed, Maoist guerrillas agreed to a end their 10-year insurgency, which claimed almost 14 000 lives, and enter a United Nations-sponsored disarmament programme. The guerrillas also returned to politics, shaping pre-election agreements such as the one to abolish the monarchy.

Last week’s polling was largely peaceful and more than 60% of the country’s 17-million voters cast a ballot. International observers, including former United States president Jimmy Carter, hailed the election as ”free and fair”.

Analysts say the Maoists proved more than a match for politicians, using a sly mix of propaganda and carefully calibrated street muscle to win over voters fed up with ”politics as usual”.

”The Maoists promised the Earth to poor, marginalised people and also ran a country-wide campaign of fear and intimidation to win the elections,” said Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of Himal magazine. ”I thought they would only get 12 seats but I am eating humble pie today. Everybody underestimated them.”

Thanks to the complicated electoral system for the 601-seat Assembly, which relies on a mix of first past the post and proportional representation, the final results of the poll will not be known for weeks. There are also caste and gender quotas designed to give the new Assembly a more representative appearance.

The Maoists want a presidential system to replace the monarchy, which would mean the rebels’ founder, Comrade Prachanda or Pushpa Kamal Dahal, would become the country’s supreme leader.

On Saturday, Prachanda, whose rebel nom de guerre means ”the fierce one”, won a seat in the capital, Kathmandu. He told reporters the Maoists were ”committed to the peace process and multi-party democracy and to rebuild this country”.

However, experts say a decisive win for the Maoists would be potentially destabilising for the region. In their manifesto, they called for scrapping all major treaties, especially those with New Delhi, and stopping the recruitment of Nepali Gurkhas in British and Indian armies. The US still lists the Maoists as a ”terrorist” group.

”We have some big issues here. The United States and India are not going to be comfortable with a Nepal dominated by Maoists,” said Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of Samaya newspaper. ”I can see a serious problem if the Maoists try to force their soldiers into the Nepalese army. It is what they want but nobody else does.” — guardian.co.uk Â