The end of Nepal's bloody civil war was supposed to bring freedom to the downtrodden. But democracy actually makes some things more complicated.
KATHMANDU, Nepal — Even by South Asian standards, it's hard to overstate how much of a political basket case Nepal has been over the years. Since a degree of democracy was introduced in 1990, it has suffered a brutal Maoist insurgency, the massacre of most of its royal family, a return to absolute rule, the abolition of the monarchy, and the collapse of every single elected government.
Yet for all the disastrous instability over the past decade and a half, Nepal has also experienced major historical change. Political power has gradually been passed down to its most oppressed castes and ethnicities. The country's successful national election this week (Nov. 19) brings glimmers of hope for one of South Asia's poorest nations.
In 2006, the country's decade-long civil war -- in which Maoist insurgents vied to topple the Nepalese monarchy, leaving an estimated 13,000 people dead -- finally came to a conclusion. Within two years of the peace agreement that ended this brutal conflict, the Maoist rebels could proclaim that their key objectives had been achieved: the 240-year-old monarchy was abolished, replaced by a democratic republic, and their party had confounded expectations with a resounding election victory.
Sadly, Nepal's politics has hardly been a paragon of stability and enlightened leadership since then. There have been five different governments in as many years, and the leading parties continue to squabble over the drafting of a new constitution. From 2010 to 2011, parliament held 17 in-house elections in an attempt to select a prime minister. In another instance, its members wasted over three months deciding which flag to adopt; weeks more were wasted in choosing the national bird, animal, and flower. In the meantime, almost nothing was done to improve on the grinding poverty faced by most of Nepal's 27 million citizens.
The euphoria that accompanied the end of the war and the fall of the much-despised King Gyanendra created the false impression that radical change had already come. Gyanendra's disastrous handling of the war, his repression of civil rights groups, and his attempt to impose absolute rule allowed the rebels and mainstream parties to make common cause against him. Things might have been different if it hadn't been for the crown prince that machine-gunned most of his own family to death in 2001. His bizarre and still unexplained drunken rampage eliminated the more popular and sensible members of the royal family.
But the abolition of the monarchy was only the beginning of real change in Nepalese society. Nepali politics had long been dominated by a small selection of upper castes, mostly from Kathmandu, while a bewildering spectrum of castes and ethnic groups -- nearly 100 of them -- were systematically shut out of power. The end of the war and the advent of true democracy finally allowed these groups to burst onto the political stage: 120 parties -- many of them based around caste and ethnicity -- took part in a lively contest before the Nov. 19th general election.
It will be a long and fraught process to overturn centuries of discrimination. Take, for example, an ethnic group called the Madhesi who live in the southern Terai plains. Despite making up around 35 percent of Nepal's population, their supposed "Indian-ness" means they have rarely been included in state institutions. Every single chief district officer (the most powerful government representative at regional level) has been sent down from the hill areas; not one is ethnically Madhesi. Only five or six Madhesi have ever made it into the officer ranks of the Nepalese Army.
The situation is even worse for low-caste Hindus, such as the Dalits. Still considered "untouchable" in many areas, they are often subject to debt bondage and prevented from entering temples and schools or drinking from the same taps as higher castes.
It was from groups such as these that the Maoists were able to recruit for their insurgency, creating a political awakening that cannot now be undone. Indeed, this social revolution has outgrown even the Maoists' intentions. At the end of the civil war, a powerful and occasionally violent Madhesi civil rights movement burst into life, and continues to grow in influence. The group could trigger its own insurgency if Madhesis remain excluded from institutions for much longer.
The pressure valve for these tensions has been the promise of federalism which would restructure the country into a series of provinces and devolve power to them in such a way that marginalized groups gain a real stake in governance. The Maoists have sided with a broad range of ethnic- and caste-based parties to push this agenda, but it has been strongly resisted by conservative parties that have traditionally dominated Kathmandu politics. The two main conservative parties are the Nepali Congress, the leading force for democracy over the decades but dominated by upper castes, and the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML) who, despite their name, are far from progressive.
The conservatives argue that federalizing the country in the way proposed by the Maoists and their allies will lead to balkanization. With so many communities jumbled together around the country, they argue, it will be impossible to create provinces that boost one ethnic group without marginalizing many others. But many see their centralizing alternatives as thinly veiled attempts to maintain the grip of upper-caste elites in Kathmandu.
It is this disagreement over federalism that has delayed the completion of the constitution. Last year, Nepal's Parliament missed their final drafting deadline, forcing an 18-month hiatus as parties bickered over how to hold elections without a constitution. The general election held this week finally marks the beginning of the end of that long-drawn-out process. Once the votes are tallied, there will be a new Constituent Assembly, which will hopefully finish the job. Given the lack of opinion polls, it has been impossible to make firm predictions ahead of the counting, which will take many days. But since every party on the ballot has promised that the constitution will be completed within a year, the future looks bright.
The potential spoiler in all this has been a hardline faction of the Maoists, the Dashists, which split off from the parent party in June 2012, taking around a third of the party's cadres with them. The slow progress on the constitution had left many former rebels disillusioned with the democratic process. They were also unimpressed with the Maoist leadership's increasingly bourgeois lifestyle. Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (known by his nom de guerre "Prachanda," or "The Fierce One") has become infamous for his love of Rolex watches and the 15-room mansion he rents in Kathmandu. This lavish lifestyle only exacerbated the sense that the Maoist party's revolutionary ideals -- for which the insurgents had sacrificed so much -- were being compromised by its leadership's cooperation with the conservative parties.
The hardliner splinter group did its best to derail this week's election, staging a crippling transport strike (known as a "banda") in the 10 days leading up to the poll. Voters were threatened, bombs planted at polling stations, buses and taxi drivers attacked -- all in a bid to show their strength and to intimidate voters into staying home. But speaking to Foreign Policy last week, one of the Dashists' senior leaders, Dev Gurung, struggled to give a convincing reason for their election boycott. He evoked technical issues, accusing the mainstream parties of "abusing the rule of law and principle of separation of powers" by appointing the chief justice of the Supreme Court to oversee the elections -- a little rich coming from a party that throws petrol bombs at buses. "We have not directed any of our cadres to carry out violence," he said, even less convincingly. One Western diplomat put it succinctly: "They dignify this stuff with the name ‘guerrilla tactics,' but it's just terrorism."
In the end, the banda mustered little popular support, and in particular failed to win over the transport industry's laborers, who urgently depend on their meager daily wages. Voting day, by contrast, turned out to be a resounding success, with early calculations pointing to a turnout of over 70 percent. It is clear that voters are tired of militancy and see their ballots as the best way to press their case for a better life. Regardless of the eventual results, the violence-free poll on Nov. 19 marked a major step forward for democracy in Nepal.
The challenge now, beyond the furious horse-trading required to build a governing coalition, will be figuring out a way to deal with these hardliners, perhaps by offering them an informal seat in the constitution talks to prevent them from veering into more concerted guerrilla violence.
But all the major steps so far -- from removing the monarchy to drafting the constitution -- are rather cosmetic compared with the deeper social forces that have been unleashed in the process. As in India, democracy is providing a voice to downtrodden ethnicities and castes for the first time in history, with implications that will be as profound as they are unpredictable. A constitution that truly respects the rights of all Nepalese citizens holds out the promise of overturning centuries of crushing social hierarchy. Ironing out its details will be a long and fractious process, but it seems clear that for this Himalayan nation, the insurgency is over, and the social revolution can begin.
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