Ballots over bullets

April 19, 2008

Kunda Dixit, editor of Nepali Times, in The Times of India:

Kathmandu: Mao is dead; long live Mao. The Great Helmsman maybe in a mausoleum in Beijing, but he is alive and kicking in Nepal.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Maoists were supposed to come to power by the barrel of the gun. In Nepal, they have been voted to power. With results of last week’s elections nearly in, it’s been a rout. The Maoists have got 50 per cent of the votes in the first-past-the-post ballot, with the mainstream Nepali Congress (NC) with just 14 per cent and other parties trailing further behind.

The result has left pundits scratching their heads, foreign embassies in Kathmandu are red-faced, the NC and CPN-UML are too stunned to even speak. Even the Maoists themselves were surprised by the vote.

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Nepal’s Maoist landslide

An electoral earthquake reflects the social distance that had grown between Kathmandu’s elite and media and Nepal’s people, says Prashant Jha, a political analyst with Nepali Times, in OpenDemocracy:

The results of the general election in Nepal on 10 April 2008, won overwhelmingly by the Maoists – officially the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) – have come as a complete shock. Many people thought the former armed rebels would be a distant third, winning perhaps fifteen-to-twenty of the 240 seats directly elected to the constituent assembly under a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system (335 of the remainder are elected under proportional representation). Some argued that the Maoists would do better than conventional wisdom in the capital Kathmandu suggested, giving them about thirty-to-forty of the FPTP seats. Only a few voices sensed the people’s desperate yearning for change, the Maoist base among the young and marginalised, and flagged the possibility of the party coming in second – or first.

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Triumph of the new mainstream in Nepal

By voting in the Maoists, the Nepali people have chosen the party most likely to push for an egalitarian society and inclusive republican system in the Constituent Assembly. Siddharth Varadarajan in The Hindu:

After failing to recognise the obvious groundswell of support that had built up for the Maoists in the run-up to the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections in Nepal, India needs to move quickly to adjust itself to the new power balance. Despite receiving reliable field reports of the widespread support the Maoists were enjoying across the country, South Block deluded itself into believing that the former rebels would be at best a distant third. Bogus surveys commissioned by t he U.S. embassy in Kathmandu in which the Maoists were shown as winning only 8 to 10 per cent of the popular vote started circulating within the corridors of power in New Delhi. Accordingly, the foreign office’s contingency planning revolved around coping with the fallout of a poor showing by the former rebels. Even here, the official assessments showed scant understanding of the ground reality with improbable scenarios like a Maoist “urban insurrection” being bandied about.

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Nepal’s “radical Democrat”

April 17, 2008

Flanked by portraits of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, Baburam Bhattarai, the chief ideologue of the Nepal’s Maoists, spoke to Nepali Times about sleepless nights, his party’s economic agenda and about whether he’d been offered the prime ministership.

Nepali Times: How does it feel to arrive here after the long journey from a village in Gorkha?
Baburam Bhattarai: There is a deep sense of responsibility, and that comes from the fact that I was born in an ordinary village family, my mother can’t read or write, my father is a farmer. As a child I used to tend livestock and help in the farm, and when I went to high school I had to carry water and cook for myself. From that to be able to go to a good school and be educated, and to have that contrast in one lifetime is fascinating in a way. But now we have been brought to this position where we have to try to resolve issues of national importance, there are enormous aspirations, there is lots to do but we have very little time and resources. It makes us somewhat anxious, thinking about whether we can do it or not. There are sleepless nights, getting up at three in the morning and not being able to go back to sleep.

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Nepal’s perilous ascent

April 10, 2008

Manjushree Thapa, the author of “Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy,” in The New York Times:

Nepalis will vote today for the first time since a democratic uprising in 2006 that rejected King Gyanendra Shah’s absolute rule and led to a peace deal that ended a 10-year Maoist insurgency. This is not an ordinary election. We will be voting for a 601-member constituent assembly that will draft a new constitution that most likely will abolish the monarchy and will certainly restructure Nepal.

It is compelling, and moving, to live through the remaking of one’s nation.

Still, Katmandu has grown hushed and watchful, and anxious, as Election Day has neared. In previous weeks, the political parties staged rallies, canvassed door to door, and filled the streets with scratchy loudspeaker announcements imploring us to vote.

[Nepal is voting in landmark elections today, March 10]

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Bhutan: First step towards democracy

March 22, 2008

From Associated Press (via IHT):

bhutanking.jpg bhutancrownprince.jpg

Thimphu, Bhutan: The command came from the king, as commands normally do in a nation where royalty has ruled for a century. But when the Precious Ruler of the Dragon People spoke that day, he stunned this deeply isolated corner of the Himalayas: The age of monarchs is ending, he said, and power should be yours.

That was a little over two years ago. Now, on the eve of national elections Monday that will upend a system rooted in feudal monarchism, much of the country remains unconvinced there should even be a vote.

Just ask the candidates. “If you had a referendum, even today, Bhutan would reject democracy. That’s the ground reality,” said Khandu Wangchuk, the burly, gravel-voiced former foreign minister who is running for a seat in the western town of Paro. “But there’s no use wishing democracy away.”

What most people want is what they’ve always had: a powerful king.

[Photo: Bhutan's King and the Crown Prince]

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Smile census: Bhutan counts its blessings

In The Wall Street Journal, Peter Wonacott reports from Thimphu:

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GNH (Gross National Happiness) is about to face a series of big tests. On Monday, Bhutan will hold its first democratic election. That will install a parliament, pass a new constitution and dilute the powers of a popular monarch. Later this year, Bhutan plans to join the World Trade Organization, even though its industry comprises little more than high-end tourism and hydroelectric power.

As Bhutan enters these uncharted political and economic waters, its leaders want to prove that they can achieve economic growth while maintaining good governance, protecting the environment and preserving an ancient culture. To do that, they’ve decided to start calculating GNH. It means coming up with an actual happiness index that can be tracked over time.

[Photo: The Punakha dzong, one of Bhutan's most beautiful buildings]

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A new deal in Pakistan

March 18, 2008

William Dalrymple in the New York Review of Books:

You can see the results of a system dominated by landowners in a town like Khairpur, a short distance from Sukkur in the northern part of Sindh. As you drive along, the turban-clad head of the local feudal lord, Sadruddin Shah, with a curling black mustache, sneers down from billboards placed every fifty yards along the road. Shah, who was standing, as usual, for no less than three different seats, is often held up in the liberal Pakistani press as the epitome of all that is worst about Pakistani electoral feudalism. After all, this is a man who goes electioneering not with leaflets setting out his program, but with five pickup trucks full of his men armed with pump-action shotguns and Kalashnikovs.

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In Peshawar, a dream of a peaceful life

February 24, 2008

Music and dancing are back as a poll landslide for secular parties brings a vibrant change to Pakistan’s North-West Frontier. Jason Burke in The Observer.

Sinking back in his armchair, Maulana Shuja ul-Mulk strokes his thick beard with one hand and the fluffy tail of a small toy dalmatian with the other. ‘We were surprised by the results,’ he admits from a supporter’s home in the small rural western Pakistani town of Mardan, ‘but we believe in democracy.’

Whether the claim is true or not, the hard political reality is that Mulk and his hardline religious party are now out of power. In the 2002 election, he and scores of other ultra-conservative clerics swept into government in Pakistan’s turbulent North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) on a tide of anti-Americanism and resurgent religious enthusiasm, vowing to impose Islamic law. But in last week’s national and provincial polls, voters backed secular and liberal candidates and evicted the ruling alliance of religious parties.

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Running on hope

Employment, security and freedom are what the common man in Pakistan dreams of. Travelling through Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Karachi — first after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and then for the election — Subhajit Roy of Indian Express pieces together Pakistan’s story of despair and dreams.

It’s the night of Sunday, February 17, the night before Pakistan goes for the “mother of all elections”, and in posh seaside Clifton area in Karachi, a group of about 150 young men in 15 cars and tempos and a dozen bikes are dancing to the tune of a Benazir Bhutto song in full volume. Waving the Pakistan People’s Party banners and flags, these young men are dancing, clapping, shouting, laughing.

That is the first sight of pure relief and happiness in Pakistan that I see in the past two months of my fly-in-fly-out visits to the country, after what can be described as a ‘stressful’ period in the country’s history. After eight years of military rule, people don’t know whether it’s over yet. And after months of collective depression, it is as if these young men-most of them studying or unemployed-have sniffed victory in Karachi’s cool sea-breeze nine hours before the country goes to the polls.

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I will stay on job: Musharraf

February 21, 2008

pakelection.gifA day after Pakistan held historic elections that restored the nation to civilian rule, President Pervez Musharraf talked to Peter Wonacott, senior South Asia correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, in Islamabad:

President Pervez Musharraf, confronted with a crushing political defeat, said he intends to stay in office to guide Pakistan’s democratic transition — even if it means working with a man he believes once tried to kill him.

In an interview a day after a landmark national election delivered resounding losses to his allies in Parliament, Mr. Musharraf said he has no plans to step down. Instead, he said he wanted to help end the internecine battles between presidents and prime ministers that have marred Pakistan’s political history and precipitated military interference in the government.

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Musharraf Q&A: ‘We Have to Move Forward’


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