Despite Worries, Nepal’s Elections Will Come Off

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Peaceful polls are more likely than mayhem or “political accident.”

A final report on election preparations from the UN Human Rights office and UNMIN, the monitoring body overseeing Nepal’s peace agreement, finds positive developments. But with just three days to go before the polls, the report also faults the parties, and especially the Maoists, for continued violent clashes and intimidation of other parties and voters.

“The Young Communist League and other Maoist cadres continued to be involved in the largest proportion of these incidents,” the report says. It urges the Maoist leadership to stop the violence and to live up to it’s commitment to accept the election results, and to avoid issuing any “contradictory statement.” Top Maoist leaders have recently said publicly both that they would accept any legitimate election outcome and also that if they lost the election they would “capture the state.”

Plots, coups, conspiracies, and unlikely political alliances abound in Nepali history, and expectations of some dramatic pre-election event are widespread. A majority of respondents to one poll in a Nepali news weekly expected the US, Japan, and India to intervene to save the monarchy. Politicians from left, right and center have all warned of the possibility of a “political accident” before elections: a Maoist takeover, a military coup, and a seven-party conspiracy to cancel the elections are all mentioned.

Maoists and ardent royalists are said to be in talks. The UML, Congress, and the Maoists are (or were) thought to be working on a deal to allow the Maoists to “win” in districts where their leaders are contesting a first-past-the-post seat. Those subjects and concern about what will happen after elections dominate coffee-house talk in Kathmandu, but what really worries people is the prospect for poll violence.

Two recent media polls show that a substantial majority of people expect violence on election day. More than two-thirds of them expect it to come from the Maoists. In fact there have been a rash of bomb blasts recently. One – probably ethnic provocation, not political terrorism – killed two people praying in a mosque in the south of the country. The others, all small pipe bombs, caused little damage but put nerves on edge.

Prominent media reporting of electoral clashes also fans fears of election day violence. But in fact, three quarters of Nepal’s 75 districts have experienced no political violence, and only a few, mostly in the ethnically-troubled south, are real hotspots.

Preparations for Thursday’s elections include a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol from Sunday night until Saturday morning and a 24-hour transportation shutdown on Thursday. No vehicles will be allowed on the roads on election day, and all domestic flights are cancelled. The police have been ordered to restrict most movement across precinct boundaries in an attempt to thwart vote fraud.

About 135,000 police have been deployed, including 55,000 who were specially recruited and trained for the election. Helicopter patrols have been organized: their coverage will be thin but authorities believe the move will reassure voters.

Last week the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative to Nepal, Ian Martin, expressed satisfaction with preparations for the elections and said that security officials had told him “that they are able to make adequate security arrangements.”

Hundreds of foreign election observers from more than 40 organizations have been accredited, in addition to more than 92,000 Nepali observers. The European Union team includes about 120 members, and the Carter Center has a delegation of 42 plus President Carter and his wife, Roslyn, who arrived Monday, to add to the 13 long-term Carter Center observers already in place.

The polls may be crowded on election day, with an average of almost 10 observers joining at least as many police and about 25 election workers at each polling place. That doesn’t include earlier Maoist claims that they would deploy 100 YCL cadres to each polling station, and subsequent matching claims from other parties.

But the more eyes the better on election day and during the vote count. Results for first-past-the-post seats may be available within a few days from some districts, but official results will take longer. The outcome of the proportional phase will take more time still, since all results (including any required re-polling due to problems) have to be tallied to perform the calculations required to allocate delegates among parties and seats to individuals based on party lists.

Final results won’t be available until early May, and drafting a new constitution is likely to take at least two years. But if the elections are seen as legitimate or at least “good enough,” the flow of foreign development funds could start very quickly. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are believed to have aid packages ready, and the US, India, EU, Japan and other countries have also pledged assistance.

That will be the first real measure of whether the elections were a success or not. The New Nepal that people here hope for is a dream of schools, clean water, roads, and electricity for their villages, whatever form of government delivers those things.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.