Monday, April 14, 2008

Nepal: Maoists sweeping towards victory

A Maoist insurgent is now odds on to become Nepal’s first elected president as results begin to flow in from last week’s election. After four days of counting the Nepal Maoist Party have won most of the 160 seats declared of the 601 seat parliament. The Maoist leader, Prachanda, said that he is willing to work with other parties for the sake of democracy but the landslide win has stunned the establishment Congress Party who were expected to win. The victory is likely to lead to constitutional change that will abolish the country’s 240 year monarchy.

Barely two years ago, Prachanda’s Maoists were at war with Nepal’s establishment and considered criminals and terrorists by the Nepali government. But after the two sides signed a peace deal in November 2006, the UN Security Council gave its seal of approval to a pact that would see the constitution re-written. Both sides agreed that “autocratic monarchy” was the main hurdle in realising a “free and sovereign Nepal”.

Now that monarchy is about to be ended. King Gyanendra has led the country since the extraordinary events of 2001 when Crown Prince Dipendra killed eight members of the royal family before committing suicide. Gyanendra hastened the monarchy’s end by disastrously deploying the royal army against the Maoists. He proved to be an unpopular leader and his effort to seize total power rebounded against him. In December 2007 the major political parties agreed to abolish the world's last Hindu monarchy as part of a deal to bring the Maoists back into government. The deal stipulated the monarchy would be eliminated once a special assembly charged with rewriting the nation's constitution is elected.

Now the game is up for Nepal’s last king. Publicly, Gyanendra has professed “satisfaction” at the widespread election participation despite the result. With the 2065th Nepali New Year to start on Sunday, he used his New Year speech to praise the people’s “firm resolve not to compromise the nation's existence, independence and integrity under any circumstance”. But with the Maoists now in power, it is likely that the first post-election meeting of government parties will abolish Gyanendra’s position.

The Maoists are led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal whose nom de guerre Prachanda means "fierce" or "terrible". The 54 year old Prachanda remains a controversial figure having led a ruthless war from exile in India that claimed the lives of 13,000 people in ten years. But others see him as a hero who represented millions of downtrodden people in one of the poorest countries in the world. The Maoist insurgency began in 1996 with a 40-point set of demands on then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. Prachanda wanted to end the “domination of foreign capital”, the “feudal system” of land ownership and “discriminatory treaties” that favoured India. Prachanda’s power base was Western Nepal and he made that part of the country unmanageable for the Kathmandu government who eventually were forced into a deal.

Once the deal was signed with his former enemies, Prachanda went into campaign overdrive. He used his charismatic powers to address campaign rallies everywhere, and his face appeared on posters across the land. Prachanda's metamorphosis from terrorist to political bigwig has worried some of his own supporters who complain that leaders are getting top medical care, live in posh houses and ride expensive cars captured in wartime. Having survived a ten-year insurrection, the hard part is just beginning for Prachanda. Leading his country and treading a path that satisfies all of his people, will be the true test of the man’s abilities.

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