The Maobaadi Triumph: Seeking Explanations
Kanak Mani Dixit runs the rule over Nepal's recent elections
For thirty years, modern Nepal was ruled by a royal autocracy. Then, starting in 1990, the people began to experience inefficient, perhaps, but real democracy, through the medium of political parties. In 1996, one of these went underground to engage in Maoist revolution, picking up the gun against the multiparty system of the day. Though gaining momentum, spread over the first seven-odd years, by 2005, the insurgency had achieved a stalemate with the state security. The rebels then decided to relinquish the "people's war" and, along with the other parties, helped generate the People's Movement of April 2006 against the king, Gyanendra -- who had in the meantime taken over. Two years later, on April 10 2008, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) made a leap into the government, winning an astounding 50 percent of elected seats in the Constituent Assembly, and nearly 30 percent of the proportional-representation votes. In so doing, they trounced the two main forces of yesteryear, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), and gained a definitive mandate from the people.
The win by the former rebels is explained most significantly by demographic shifts in Nepali society. These delivered a wave of support straight into the Maoist hands from the dalit, ethnic/indigenous janajati, youth and economically marginalised strata. They also had a fine-tuned campaign machine that used populist rhetoric to woo the masses, and did not shy away from countrywide threats and intimidation. The demographic surge and populist campaign gave the Maoists the bulk of their votes, but they were nervous enough about this first-time outcome to feel the need for coercion. In retrospect, they might themselves agree that they need not have.
The decisive evolution in the public's self-awareness began with the 1990 People's Movement, which did away with the royal Panchayat regime, and provided space for ethnic assertion and grassroots activism. The radical transformations that, over the last decade, overtook Nepal's diverse population, are also explained by exposure to the wider world through media and first-time road transport, political awareness through non-governmental activism, the experience of local governance, the arousal linked to the ''people's war'', and the democratic fight against the autocratic royal, Gyanendra. A huge spike in the youth population, coupled with higher literacy, delivered a voting category that was quite different from the one which had exercised the ballot the last time, in 1999.
All of this was carefully utilised by astute strategists within the Maoist party, who had stayed in continuous touch and engaged with the villages when the other political parties had been scared off by the insurgency.
While these and other societal shifts were obvious, they had not been studied adequately by many analysts in terms of electoral impact. Those with lack of foresight and insight included this writer, who had suggested a third-place showing for the Maoists, after the UML and Nepali Congress. Based on the experience in other countries, the reading was that the Maoist violence was too recent in the public memory for the party to excel in its first electoral exercise, but that staying the course would deliver the support of the underclass and marginalised to the Maoists in the long run. Indeed, this writer had thought that the public would not give unqualified support to the Maoists in the absence of some kind of apology down the line for the excess that was the "people's war." As it turned out, the populace had no time for any kind of further evolution: that the Maoists had called off their insurgency and come into the peace process and elections was deemed enough to give them a resounding mandate.
Moreover, unencumbered by the hold of upper-caste politicos, and without sitting legislators and party bosses to cater to, the CPN (Maoist) went all-out in selecting candidates from marginalised groups. They then proceeded to successfully get them elected in a manner that the other political parties could not expect to achieve over successive elections. Besides the Maoists' good showing in garnering 120 of the 240 seats in the direct-candidate elections, and ensuring diversity therein, the representation of the many communities of Nepal was also guaranteed by the innovation of 335 seats available under the "proportional representation" ballot. Under this system, parties were allotted seats in proportion to the votes they polled, and parties in turn selected their Assembly members in proportion to the defined national communities, such as women, janajati and dalit. The presence of the Maoists in this election and the use of proportional representation have delivered the most significant success of the elections of April 10, one that turns Nepali politics on its head and guarantees representation and inclusion like never before. Along the way, the decades-long control of the Bahuns (hill Brahmins) over the political process seems to have been significantly deconstructed.
In a country made up of many marginalised groups -- by ethnicity, caste, faith and region -- the poor and disfranchised overwhelmingly responded as a vote bank for the Maoists. Age, too, played a significant part in the recent polls, with voters between 18 and 25, making up 30 percent of the national roll, casting the ballot for the first time. Many new issues cropped up that were not present in past general elections, including positions and planks raised by the ethnic consciousness across the hills, the Madhes agitations in the plains of the last two years, and the "people's war." This turbulence threw up the new agenda of secularism, federalism and republicanism, and the bulk of young voters, it turned out, saw the Maoists as the vanguard on all fronts.
The CPN (Maoist) war chest was full, and money was spent liberally. The campaign strategy was to make use of smart slogans, aggressive speeches and a reliance on unrestrained populism. The key slogan, "We've seen the others, now let us try the Maobaadi," caught the public's imagination, and the Maoists had no compunction about utilising ethnic populism for votes -- for example, by mooting ethnic-based federal provinces in a country of widely mixed habitation.
At the beginning, the Maoists were not confident about their showing, and so the matter of "seat adjustments" was raised with the competing parties. For long, the Maoists also insisted on a full-proportional system of voting rather than the mixed system that was ultimately adopted. In those initial calculations, the Maoists felt that a proportional vote would secure them a base level of seats from the underclass and marginalised communities, expecting that they would not get enough votes for their individual candidates to succeed. Having agreed to the mixed electoral system, the Maoist leadership experienced a panic attack in September 2007, and walked out of the interim government so as to scuttle the (second scheduled) polls, slated for November. As it turned out, it was the well-worn faces of the Nepali Congress and the UML that the voters rejected, while the CPN (Maoist) made off with exactly half of the 240 seats in the direct-candidate elections. The proportional elections, which were supposed to be the Maoist lifeline, in fact turned out to be one for the other parties.
Over the winter, the Maoists were hoping to make a strong third place while aiming for second. A poll conducted in December found that around 43 percent of respondents were still undecided, with the first two places still reserved for the UML and Congress. In retrospect, the undecided seem to have gone for the Maoists. According to Maoist leaders, they knew that they had turned the corner by January, and in a samikshya baithak (evaluation meeting) two weeks before April 10, the conclusion was that there was a lahar (wave) in their favour. The party suddenly looked headed for first place, and the leaders said as much publicly but few others were believing.
Indeed, such was the leadership's confidence level that it downplayed the killing of six cadre in western Dang District in a skirmish with police two days before the elections. Those who believed that the Maoists were, yet again, itching for an exit from the polls worried that the party would use this incident as an excuse; they were surprised when Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ("Prachanda") urged his followers to remain calm and stay the course. In retrospect, the controlled response was also an effort not to jeopardise the sure win.
The fact that pressure tactics were used countrywide in the immediate lead-up to the polls simply extended the Maoist range of victory -- sometimes to unbelievable proportions -- as in the district of Gorkha. The real brilliance of the Maoist electoral malfeasance, what some of their activists called '<>baidhanik kyapcher<>' (legal capture), was that it was geared to be invisible to the international poll observers, while the local poll officials, observers and volunteers of other parties could be intimidated as required. (It should also be noted that, booth-per-booth, election-time malpractice was even more pronounced in the Tarai plains, by elements other than the Maoists.)
Threat of violence included the spreading of rumours about secret techniques to monitor the voting, threats of dire consequences and fines for those voting for others, marches by Young Communist League and cantonment combatants, and so on. Individual candidates were selectively thrashed to send a message to the activists and voters of other parties: a state which could not protect candidates of the prime minister's and home minister's own party could hardly shield others.
Compared to the expectations of outright election-day violence -- from the Tarai militants, from the royalist right and from Maoist cadre -- polling day itself was bright, largely peaceful, and indeed, celebratory. It was like a nationwide festival, and everyone rushed to pronounce the elections free and fair. As the results started coming in the next morning, it was clear that the Maoists were on a roll. While there seems little doubt that the level of malpractice was not at such a level as to negate the Maoist landslide, the craftiness of the exercise of intimidation and "booth capture" certainly needs scrutiny. Hopefully, one or more of the many election-observer groups in Nepal will compile reports and study the trends so that future elections can be more free and fair.
Vote for peace
The transformed nature of the voting populace and clever campaigning explain, in large part, the Maoist win. But the results of April 10 also indicated, in a roundabout way, a "vote for peace." Over the two years since the People's Movement of April 2006, and the peace process under which the CPN (Maoist) was gingerly brought into the interim government, Nepal has largely been without government administration and law and order. A large part of the population felt insecure, particularly with the Maoists having deployed their youth wing, the Young Communist League.
In addition, the party's leadership regularly provided ominous warnings, carried by Nepal's efficient radio, print and television media, that they would return to the jungle and restart the people's war if the party lost the Constituent Assembly elections. They added that "revolutionary parties" could never lose elections. As such, with the state establishment and civil society having neglected the task of demobilisation and integration of Maoist combatants, the country went to elections with two armies, the national force and the Maoist force. A rational choice was thus made by the public: to vote the Maoists into power, as the most effective means of keeping safe. Many voters would have hoped that all the strong-arming and extortions would end with this one stroke, coupled with the responsibility that comes with overwhelming power.
The aging and ailing Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala had, in April 2006, been anointed the unquestioned head of state and government, with the task of easing the Maoists into the mainstream. Unfortunately, emphysema had taken a toll on the prime minister's health, which showed up in his weakened organisational abilities and political leadership. For a man whose strength had always been a voracious ability to meet people and ingest diverse ideas, Koirala was now mostly confined to his bedroom and antechamber at the prime ministerial residence. He hardly visited Singha Durbar, the central secretariat, and did not maintain a prime minister's office worth the name, working variously through confidantes and relations.
It was Koirala's choice of Krishna Prasad Sitaula as home minister that became an important factor in the state's inability to give the people a sense of security. A peacemaker who had been the key interlocutor in negotiations with the rebels in 2005-06, Sitaula seemed out of touch with the requirements of his cabinet post: he was lenient regarding Maoist misdemeanours to the point of appeasement. It could be that Sitaula was fearful of a Maoist return to the jungle (which was not about to happen) and consequent collapse of the peace process. With the Home Ministry unable to galvanise the Nepal police and the district administrations, the impunity that had been the leitmotif of national polity for a decade and more remained firmly in place, even during the transitional phase. The populace understood that the government was in no position to protect them. All of this was a boon to the Maoists as election time came around.
The legitimisation of the Maoists through the electoral process was long sought by the Congress and UML, and, whether by design or by default, they conducted a low-key election campaign compared to the aggressiveness of the former rebels. All the same, the two parties were hardly expecting the kind of triumph that the Maoists went on to achieve. No doubt, both parties were seen as Bahun-dominated establishmentarian forces that would be slow in delivering change at a time when the people had waited too long in despair. The weaknesses of the political parties -- including influence peddling, nepotism, infighting, corruption and lack of an energising worldview -- were all too evident, and the CPN (Maoist) promised something new and exciting, even if untested.
The question remains, however, as to whether the Congress and UML deserved to be penalised the way they were at the ballot. They were being made to answer for the lack of economic progress and the halt to development over the decade of conflict, ironically a situation that was largely created by the Maoist "people's war." Likewise, over the last two years the coalition government was so engaged in the peace process, with the Maoists having one foot in and one foot out of government, that both governance and the economy were inevitably impacted. The situation was further complicated by the Madhes Movement of the winter of 2006-07, and the continuing agitations throughout the following year.
It is important to remember that the Maoists did not begin their "people's war" against the monarchy. Rather, the gun was picked up, in 1996, against the parliamentary set-up and democratic government in Kathmandu. The conditions in Nepal at that time certainly required a social revolution, and the "people's war" was the action of a smallish political party seeking the path of violence to power. The party utilised effective war strategy in its fight against the state, gaining strength in its central-west stronghold. The CPN (Maoist) was eventually awarded a string of rewards with which to expand, including the suspension of Parliament, the cancellation of local government, and the progressive moves by the pompous Gyanendra to rule absolutely after 2002. This last allowed the Maoist propaganda machine to claim that all along the fight had been against the feudocratic royal regime.
Six years after the advent of democracy in 1990, the political parties had barely begun to learn how to govern when the Maoists went underground and shook the foundations of the state establishment. The mid-1990s were a time when, after initial hiccups, the Parliament had finally started to function as a place of civil discourse, and the economy had begun to grow at six percent annually. Nepal's political parties tackled the insurgents as best they could, given their individual competitive inclinations, the subterfuges of the royal palace, and the fact that an under-equipped and dispirited civilian police was being put up against the highly motivated guerrilla army.
It was only when the Maoists had achieved a stalemate with the state that they became agreeable to peace. But first, they needed a face-saving way out of the "people's war." As such, Koirala and the UML's Madhav Kumar Nepal agreed to the Maoist demand for the Constituent Assembly, provided that the Maoists gave up the gun. With the Maoists entering the peace-and-democracy process, the marginalised communities of Nepal took up the Constituent Assembly agenda with alacrity, and the process took on a life of its own.
The fact is that elections had not happened for nine years, and the economy was in shambles for many reasons, but mostly due to the insurgency. When the Maoists came up with their effective slogans against the "incumbents," they were exploiting the frustrations the populace had with the ten years of conflict followed by two years of tenuous transition. The Maoists were successful in painting the slow-moving UML and Congress as failed parties, which represented the corruption, poor development, maladministration and chaos of both the immediate and long-term past. In fact, it was the political parties which had worked to bring the Maoists into government, making notably magnanimous agreements, including giving the rebel force equal berths in the interim parliament and interim government. Whatever the reasons, the UML and Congress' great contribution in bringing the Maoists to the table did not seem adequate to the voters.
The Constituent Assembly has long been seen as the departure point for the making of a "new Nepal" after decades of underdevelopment and a dozen years of violent instability. The Maoists have now been "cleansed" by the elections. The expectation is that they will indeed rise to the responsibilities of high office, shedding completely their ferocious streak and publicly renouncing violence. One must hope that, having won where the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) of Peru and so many other 'revolutions" were crushed or compromised, the well-honed politico-military machinery of the Maoists will have the understanding and capability to transform into a democratic institution that will tolerate and encourage pluralism, representative government and the fundamental freedoms.
Photo: AMIRUL RAJIV
Rather than begrudge the former rebels their success, the other political parties and broader civil society must help the Maoists to run a government (in whatever configuration) that is accountable, promotes service delivery, rule of law and the writing of a democratic constitution over the course of the next two years. It could even be that the political party that has, in the past, been the most violent can itself most effectively crush the culture of physical harm that has invaded Nepali society in the last decade. The people crave to live peacefully and without fear, holding different values and opinions, and to have political stability that will automatically energise economic growth. On the other hand, it is unlikely that they would want the Chinese model of economic growth without personal freedom, which surely would not work with the democracy that Nepali society has experienced.
The Maoists have promised peace and stability through a multi-party democratic polity, but civil society will have to keep alert because the rebels are also past masters at tailoring words to the audience, be it national or international. In his first victory speech, on April 12, bedecked with layers of marigold garlands, Chairman Dahal concentrated on addressing the fears of the bureaucracy, the international community, the security agencies and the private sector. One disconnect between what the Maoists have promised and what they can deliver is the fact that they cannot escape Nepal's particular geopolitical and developmental straitjacket. Prachanda Path -- the local answer to "Mao Tse Tung Thought" -- will have to be rapidly adjusted when confronted with these realities. The Maoists will realise double-quick the need to drop their tried and tested ultra-nationalistic rhetoric; and for managing the country's finances and carrying out development, they will have to cohabitate with the international financial institutions and the omnipresent "donors," bilateral and multilateral.
While the conservatives would smile cynically as the Maoists begin their ride down the road of realism, there are already signs that would alarm the Marxist fellow-traveller. On April 16, the party's very first formal meeting, even as the election results came in, was with the pantheon of the Federation of Nepali Chamber of Commerce and Industry. There, Chairman Dahal promised to maintain capitalism, and not to rock any commercial boat. In addition, the chief Maoist ideologue, Baburam Bhattarai, made haste to claim that the party did not expect to introduce socialism for another century, and communism for an additional century. Rather, this was the time, in the Nepali context, when feudalism was being jettisoned, and there was nowhere to go but the route of bourgeois capitalism.
While such pronouncements are striking, they do beg the larger question: whether the 14,000 dead, the disappeared, the destruction of the economy since 1996, the devastation of bridges and district infrastructure, the traumatising of the population, and the deployment of the national army (which conducted its own brutalities) in response to the insurgency were indeed justified to arrive at such a point. Will the CPN (Maoist) become just another party espousing the social-democratic message of mixed economy and state benevolence, dropping its plans on the altar of instantaneous pragmatism, even before the marker ink has dried on the voter's thumb? Whatever the answer, one can hope that now, with power achieved, the former rebels will be able to provide development and economic advance amidst a free society with the same proficiency with which they conducted guerilla warfare and the election campaign just ended. For this, the Maoists will have to turn into democrats, and there is perhaps no reason why Nepal cannot make a success of this brand of political experimentation.
Things may also not be simple for the Maoists because, unlike their own rhetoric before the election results started coming in, they are not going to be in total command of the polity even though they are in the driver's seat. There is a hung parliament -- or, rather, a hung assembly -- in Kathmandu, with the Maoists needing to muster forces and form a coalition government that will work consensually to run the administration and write the constitution. For this, they will have to negotiate with the three main forces, the Congress, the UML and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) as the powerful new entrant in the Nepali polity and representing the sharp edge of plains activism. (Indeed, the Maoist success in the hills is mirrored by the win of the MJF in the Tarai, where it got 30 seats to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Congress and UML as a national party.)
The hope for now is that the new constitution, which will be written and promulgated over the next two years, will protect the values to which the Nepali people have already become accustomed. These include the fundamental freedoms of thought, speech and assembly, as well as accountability, human rights, free judiciary, multiparty governance, periodic elections, pluralism and separation of powers. At the same time, the Constituent Assembly will be adding elements to make Nepali democracy more inclusive and representative, addressing the issues of secularism, federalism, affirmative action and republicanism -- ideas that have already been agreed upon by the main political players, but whose actual fleshing out is bound to prove problematic. Simply put, Nepal needs to evolve as a liberal, inclusive, democratic society through the writing of a democratic constitution, the loktantrik sambidhaan.
The CPN (Maoist) will now be driving Nepal with the people's consent, in a position to chaperone both the government and the writing of the constitution in collaboration with the other parties. Having come to power through popular will, the party should have the wherewithal to deliver three elements that are so desired in Nepal at this time: political stability, durable peace and inclusive democracy. While the neighbours may prioritise the first, and the international peacekeepers prioritise the second, the Nepali people will be forgiven for wanting all three, and simultaneously. When that happens, the country's economy will spring to life, as it has been waiting to do all these years. Simultaneously, the government will have to kick-start development, begin the process of post-conflict rehabilitation of both infrastructure and the citizenry's psyche, and launch showcase projects that generate hope and employment.
The Maoists have arrived at the helm of power when the people are tired and want change, and have decided to reject the other parties in their favour. This is a great opportunity for Chairman Dahal, who likes to talk of how Nepal's Maoists are innovators who know the weaknesses of communist regimes elsewhere, to lead his party into a democratic evolution that will surprise the world. Indeed, he can try and fashion a polity that is economically strong, like the neighbour of the north, but fit it into a democratic frame, such as that of the neighbour of the south. Let it be said that there is a party that is Maoist in name, which can and will function as a democratic force to protect pluralism and promote the economy.
The CPN (Maoist) must prove to the world within a matter of weeks that it can, in one stroke, put its violent past behind. No sensible citizen or political party will think twice about the Maoists continuing to win in future free-and-fair elections if they do transform thus, for that will also be the start of the Nepali economic transformation. At that point, conditions will finally be created under which citizens will no longer have to migrate to seek menial jobs in foreign lands, as they have done for three centuries now. With the writing of a people's democratic constitution and its effective implementation, let the country put an end to that chapter, and let Nepalis never again have to leave their fields and terraces for remote outposts. They need to experience wealth and happiness in their own homes and neighbourhoods, and perhaps the elections of April 10 is harbinger of the turning of the historical tide.
Kanak Mani Dixit is Editor, Himal Southasian, where this piece was first published. Reprinted by arrangement. Himal Southasian is available on-line at www.himalmag.com.