A supporter with a sticker of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) on his cheek attends the party's election campaign in Kathmandu November 13, 2013.
Navesh Chitrakar / Courtesy Reuters

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. 

But then the results started to come in, and the incumbent Maoists did not like what they saw. Initial data showed that their popularity had plummeted; the party, which held the largest number of seats in the last parliament, fell to a distant third behind the more conservative Nepali Congress and Unified Marxist-Leninists (whose name belies a fairly conservative agenda). Most damaging, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the Maoist chairman who is known as Prachanda (the Fierce One), had lost his legislative seat in Kathmandu by a crushing margin.

In a panic -- and with astounding cynicism -- the Maoists declared that the election must have been rigged. They provided no evidence, but claimed that the army and other officials had tampered with ballot boxes while they were being transported from polling stations. "If the election commission does not immediately stop counting, we will completely boycott the entire election process. We will boycott the Constituent Assembly," Prachanda told a rally of supporters in Kathmandu. The election commission refused to heed his demand, and the Maoists have since stepped back from the brink -- suggesting that they are willing to take part in the assembly so long as they are consulted in all major decisions, regardless of their seat numbers. That will be hard for the other parties to stomach. With 95 percent of the vote counted, the Maoists have just 80 seats in the new Constituent Assembly, compared with 196 for the Nepali Congress and 175 for the Unified Marxist-Leninists. Whatever happens next, the Maoists have given the clear impression that their taste for democracy lasts only as long as they are the beneficiaries.

There are numerous reasons for the decline of the Maoists, and they don’t have much to do with election fraud. When the party’s leaders won the elections in 2008, they were a relatively unknown quantity, having spent more than a decade underground. Large swaths of the public bought into the hype that the party had come to clean up politics, help the poor and the marginalized, and stamp out corruption. In a largely feudal country, in which around a quarter of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, this Maoist program had obvious appeal to the masses, especially when combined with promises to respect democracy and capitalism as inevitable aspects of twenty-first-century politics.

However, the discrepancy between the newcomers’ promises and their record once they were in power left the public disheartened. Some of this was unfair: all the leading parties played a role in the deadlock and the failure to draft a constitution over the past five years.  

But the Maoists did make mistakes. Across the country, Maoist leaders tended to favor party members for contracts and official jobs. For example, in 2011, the Maoist-led government set up the Youth Self-Employment Program, which offered 500 million rupees ($5 million) worth of loans for unemployed youths to start businesses. It created just 2,000 jobs and was abandoned within 18 months. “When I heard about this program, I thought, At last! This is the sort of thing the country needs,” Khem Lakal, who runs a tourism school in Kathmandu, said. “But I quickly realized all the money was just going into the pockets of Maoist cadres and it was the same old politics.”

Particularly damaging was the Maoists’ failure to keep their own house in order. Shortly after the collapse of the Constituent Assembly, a hard-line group within the Maoists, led by Prachanda’s former guru Mohan Baidya, split off from the rest of the party, taking more than a third of its members with him. Although the group remained officially committed to the peace process, it spoke out against key compromises made by the Maoist leadership, particularly the agreement to disband the Maoist army and the decision to make conciliatory moves toward the Indian government (a persistent bête noire in Maoist rhetoric for its history of interfering in Nepali politics). In the run-up to the election, it launched a transport strike and attacked any commercial vehicles operating on the roads.

The party’s worst tactical mistake came in 2009, when Prachanda tried to sack the chief of the army staff over his refusal to give jobs to former Maoist fighters, a move that led to the collapse of Prachanda’s government and set the peace process back by months.

The tragedy is that, for all the Maoists’ failings, they had promoted a laudably progressive vision for the country’s future. Nepal is an incredibly diverse place, home to over 100 ethnicities, yet it has been dominated by a small group of Kathmandu-based elites for centuries. The civil war and the introduction of democracy allowed traditionally marginalized communities to participate in politics for the first time. In league with these new ethnically based political parties, the Maoists had sought to restructure the country into a system of federal states that would guarantee some of these groups a greater role in government institutions.

The Nepali Congress and United-Marxist-Leninists argued that federalism would lead to the disintegration of the country and called for states to be structured along geographical -- rather than ethnic or caste -- lines. “Nepal society is so diverse, it’s not possible at all to create a state that will be meant for any particularly ethnic group or caste,” Gagan Thapa, a rising star in the Nepali Congress, told me last month. His party’s call for unity and pan-Nepali nationalism has resonated with voters, but in reality, is likely to lead to the continued dominance of upper castes in political life. The public’s attraction to nationalism and its increasing dislike of Maoist leaders may end up endangering Nepal’s chance to share power more evenly among its ethnic groups.

None of what happened in November bodes well. Aware that years of uncertainty have tested the public’s patience, every party had agreed to complete the constitution within a year of this week’s election. But the Maoists’ initial rejection of the results set an awkward tone for the coming negotiations. And the lopsided result actually makes it more difficult to achieve the compromises needed to complete the constitution, since the Maoists may feel that their only hope is to boycott negotiations altogether and take their protests on to the streets. As well as the federalism issue, there is also stark disagreement over the form of government to adopt, although the Maoists’ push for a presidential system -- with Prachanda lined up for the presidency -- will be less of a priority now that his unpopularity has been made clear.

The major risk is that this imbalance will lead to a hardening of ideologies on all sides: the conservatives will feel that they have a mandate to ignore demands for greater representation of marginalized ethnic groups, whereas the Maoist hard-liners will argue that the alleged rigging of the election is proof that the conservative parties cannot be trusted and that democracy is a sham.

On the bright side, a descent back into full-blown civil war is unlikely. There is very little appetite for a return to the brutality and widespread human rights abuses that characterized those traumatic years. Most Maoists are firmly entrenched in the democratic system, and several senior members openly criticized Prachanda’s call to reject the election results. Meanwhile, both India and China are determined to keep Nepal from reverting to war, given the threat that the violence could spill across Nepal’s borders. The most likely outcome is a continuation of the delays, strikes, and endless political wrangling that have become depressingly familiar in Nepal. The country had ten governments during the 1990s and has had five in the past five years. For a moment last month, there appeared to be a break in that cycle, but the Maoists, with their backs against the wall, may decide that further instability is the only way to keep their agenda alive. Further delays could well undo the progress that Nepal has made in recent years and keep it from the stable and inclusive future that its citizens crave.

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