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Letter From Kathmandu
ERIC RANDOLPH is a freelance reporter and analyst for IHS Jane's.See more by this author
For a brief moment in November, Nepal appeared to have finally escaped the endless cycle of instability, violence, and petty political brinkmanship in which it had been trapped for the last few decades. In defiance of a hard-line Maoist group that had tried to derail the country’s first general election in years with a campaign of low-level terrorism, voters turned out in record numbers. In doing so, they sent a clear message about their faith in democracy despite the chronic failures of their elected officials. But that moment of elation did not last.
The past two decades have changed Nepal almost beyond recognition. Between 1996 and 2006, a civil war triggered by Maoist insurgents claimed an estimated 13,000 lives. That war led to the abolition of Nepal’s autocratic monarchy in 2008 and to the establishment of a secular democratic republic soon thereafter. The country’s first free election then handed the Maoists a majority in the Constituent Assembly, whose 601 members were tasked with forging a new constitution.
That process was scheduled for completion in 2010. Three years later, there are still major issues to resolve. To be sure, the Constituent Assembly has achieved a great deal, including fully disbanding the Maoist army and reintegrating its former fighters into society. But the leading parties remain starkly divided over two crucial questions: how to restructure the country into a federal system of states and what form of government to adopt. In May 2012, as a fourth and final deadline to draft the constitution passed with no agreement, then Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai disbanded the Constituent Assembly. The country plunged back into disarray, and the leading parties, not quite sure how to proceed without a constitution or a legislature, took until this November to agree on a formula determining how to hold elections to a new assembly. That body, the public hopes, will finally be able to finish the job.
On Election Day, the mood in the villages around Kathmandu, as elsewhere, was surprisingly upbeat. Regardless of the actual result of the poll, the turnout was a vote of confidence in the democratic process. Observers declared the election free and fair, and voters experienced relatively little violence, marking what felt like a major improvement on past elections and a watershed moment in Nepali politics.