Nepal’s Maoists win lead role in new governing assembly
By Binaj Gurubacharya
KATMANDU, Nepal — Nepal’s former communist rebels were declared the biggest party in a new governing assembly Thursday. While the Maoists won’t have a majority, they are expected to usher in sweeping changes for the poor Himalayan nation.
First up: getting rid of the royal dynasty that has ruled Nepal for 239 years.
"The first meeting of the Constituent Assembly will end the monarchy and establish a republic — there will be no compromise," the Maoists’ leader, Prachanda, told reporters Thursday.
While there is still support for the monarchy, few Nepalis will mourn the exit of King Gyanendra, who seized absolute power in 2005 only to be forced into restoring democracy a year later by widespread protests.
The Maoists put aside their arms and signed a peace deal giving them a role in an interim administration. They toned down their rhetoric and found strong support from voters upset by the country’s poverty and disenchanted with the often squabbling and corrupt political elite.
Fear also may have helped some. The movement, which murdered critics during its insurgency and forced young men and women to be guerrillas, was accused of trying to intimidate voters and rivals during the campaign, but international observers said the election was largely fair.
Election Commission official Yam Bahadur Dura said preliminary results from the April 10 election gave the Maoists 217 seats in the 601-seat assembly. That was more than double either of Nepal’s longtime parties — the Nepali Congress, with 107, and the United Marxist-Leninists, with 101.
Voters directly elected 240 lawmakers, and 335 seats were allocated to the parties based on their percentage of the total vote. The remaining 26 are reserved for major politicians who didn’t win seats.
Now that the Maoists have thoroughly trounced their partners in the transition government, there is much uncertainty over the makeup of the new administration that will be formed by the assembly, which will be responsible for rewriting the constitution while it governs.
The Maoists have been in talks in recent days with the other major parties and are pushing for creation of a president, a job they want for Prachanda, whose name means "the fierce one" in Nepali.
"It is my desire to be the president," Prachanda said after meeting with U.N. officials and foreign ambassadors in Katmandu. "But since there is no provision in the present constitution, we will have to reach some agreement with the other political parties."
Prachanda’s reaction to Thursday’s vote announcement was subdued. He largely spoke about the mechanics of government and shied from grand statements about the future.
It was clear that the Maoists, who led the vote tally throughout the counting of ballots, have moved past celebrating and are trying to figure out how to run a country where some 13,000 people died as a result of their decade-long insurgency.
The Maoists, who are still considered terrorists by the United States, have said they are committed capitalists, albeit left-leaning ones, and have no plans to transform Nepal into a communist state.
Prachanda met with business leaders Wednesday to reinforce his capitalist credentials, saying Nepal needs more domestic and foreign investment if the government is to help ordinary people, many of whom toil as landless peasants in arrangements reminiscent of feudalism. Per capita income is just $25 a month.
But before the Maoists can do anything, they need to form a government. And it’s far from clear Nepal’s traditional political parties, the partners the Maoists most desire, are ready to join.
One official from the Nepali Congress, Ram Sharan Mahat, said his party was split on what to do, especially given the accusations that Maoists used violence during the election campaign. Mahat, who is finance minister in the transitional government, suffered slight injuries from an attack by Maoist supporters.
"Many of the members suggest that we should not be part of the Maoist-led government or have any partnership with them," Mahat told The Associated Press . "The Maoists were involved in lot of illegal activities during the election and we were deceived by them."
The Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), meanwhile, is focused on trying to assess why it fared so badly in the polls, said Raghuji Pant, a senior official. Before the election, most observers expected the United Marxist-Leninists to be the biggest vote-getter.
Prachanda said the Maoists hope for good relations with the United States. After meeting with foreign ambassadors, including U.S. envoy Nancy Powell, he expressed hope that Washington would remove them from its list of terrorist groups.
"We met in a group. She did not ask any questions. She did not say anything negative or anything positive. She only listened to others speak," Prachanda told reporters. "I hope after this meeting America will reconsider their policy."
There has been no decision by Bush administration on whether the group will be taken off the terror list, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said this week.
But, he added, "to the extent you have an organization that moves away from violence and terror and participates in a political process and engages in those kinds of legitimate activities, that would certainly, I think, give people an opportunity to at least look again at that situation and that organization."