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KATHMANDU, Apr 7 2008 (IPS) - On April 10, Nepalis will vote in elections that will mark the end of their country\’s 240-year-old monarchy and formally bring Maoist guerrillas into mainstream democratic politics, writes Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times newspaper in Kathmandu. In this article, Dixit writes that the elections represent the last stage of the peace process. The people will vote directly for candidates as well as parties so that the assembly will have members of ethnic and other marginalised groups never represented before in proportion to their population. With voting just around the corner, those who have the most to lose seem to be getting frantic. Absolute monarchists have been carrying out terrorist attacks in an attempt to disrupt polls by provoking communal violence, while radical Maoists, afraid they will do badly in the elections, want to intimidate voters to minimise turnout and so call into question the legitimacy of the result.
The people will elect 575 members to an assembly that will draft Nepal’s new constitution. This is the first election that will be held under a mixed proportional representation system and try to bring into the decision-making process women and ethnic groups that had not previously been fairly represented.
The vote also represents the end of a messy two-year transition since the April 2006 People Power uprising forced King Gyanendra to restore democracy and bring back parliament. The seven parties that have ruled Nepal since have decided to formally declare Nepal a republic during the first session of the elected assembly.
Two years after the war ended, the polls will also bring the Maoists into non-violent politics. This campaign has seen former guerrillas addressing campaign rallies and asking people to vote for them in a move from the bullet to the ballot.
These elections had to be postponed twice because political leaders got cold feet. In the unstable political transition, the government has often been disunited, and even though the war has ended, the Nepali people are still waiting for the peace dividend. The economy is still stagnant, and the country faces extended power cuts every day despite the fact that it is rich in hydropower. There are long lines at gas stations because the country cannot pay for imports, and a dramatic increase in food prices is hurting the poor. Jobless Nepalis are migrating to the Gulf, Malaysia, and India for work, and the money they send home is propping up the economy.
Still, Nepal has seen a dramatic transformation of state structure in the past two years. A Hindu kingdom has been turned into a secular republic, and the absolute monarchy has been sidelined and stripped of its command of the army. The Maoist war has seen a negotiated settlement, the former guerrillas are in UN-supervised camps with their arms, and they are represented in an interim parliament and in the coalition government.
The elections represent the last stage of the peace process. On Thursday, the people will vote directly for candidates as well as parties so that the assembly will have members of ethnic and other marginalised groups never represented before in proportion to their population.
Nepalis are eager to vote because for them it means an end to violence and instability. The process of drafting a new constitution will take at least two years, and the assembly will serve also as a parliament.
To be sure, things won’t change for the better overnight. Nepal’s political parties have often shown in the past that they are better at fighting for democracy than making it work. The big challenge will be to make democracy deliver development. People need to see a tangible improvement in their lives in a country that is the poorest in Asia.
With voting just around the corner, those who have the most to lose also seem to be getting frantic. There are still two spoilers: the radical right and the radical left.
Absolute monarchists have been carrying out terrorist attacks in an attempt to disrupt polls by provoking communal violence. There is evidence that hardline monarchists want to use the Hindu religious card to whip up support from people who don’t agree with Nepal being turned into a secular republic. There is some support for this from the Hindu right in India.
The other threat is from radical Maoists who want to intimidate voters for fear that they will do badly in the elections. They want to minimise turnout and so call into question the legitimacy of the result.
Despite these problems, most Nepalis want to get out and vote because they are convinced that the elections will finally bring peace, stability and development. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)
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