KATHMANDU, April 14 – Successful on the battlefield, Nepal’s Maoists appear to have confounded predictions they would fail at the ballot box — taking a stunning early lead in the count from last week’s elections.,
Behind the numbers emerging from the Election Commission in Kathmandu is what observers and ordinary voters say is a resounding demand for sweeping change in the Himalayan nation and one of the world’s poorest places.
Last Thursday’s polls — the first major elections in nearly a decade — are set to change the history of the country by electing a body whose first job is to rewrite the constitution and most likely abolish a discredited monarchy.
Of the 601 seats up for grabs in a new Constituent Assembly, nearly one third have been decided or were close to being allocated — with the former rebels taking or poised to win the lion’s share.
Local media said the Maoists, who fought a decade-long insurgency to oust the monarchy, had already won 59 seats and were far ahead in scores of others currently being tallied — about three times as many as their nearest rivals.
"The Maoists had an election slogan: ‘We have seen everyone else time and time again, lets see the Maoists’ this time’," recounted 56-year-old Ganey Darai, a voter who gave the ex-rebels his backing.
"People have decided to take them up on their word, and see what they can do," said Darai, who earns less than a dollar a day hiring out weighing scales outside a hospital in Kathmandu.
Nepal’s established parties and the monarchy, he said, had had their chance — and were now suffering as the results rolled in.
"I would rather take a chance with the Maoists than the other political parties who have done nothing for poor people like me," Darai said.
The Maoist surge also appears to highlight the depth of the unpopularity of King Gyanendra, who ascended the throne after the tragic and bizarre palace massacre of 2001 — in which the former king and nearly all the rest of the family were shot dead by a lovelorn, drunk, drugged and suicidal prince.
Gyanendra’s status sank in 2005, when he fired the government and seized absolute power to fight the Maoists — only to push mainstream parties into the arms of the rebels and enter a peace deal that led to Thursday’s elections.
First-time voter Laxmi Shrestha, 22, said only the Maoists could be trusted to finally oust the unpopular monarchy and deliver the kind of shake-up Nepal and its feudal-style heirarchy needed.
"I am a staunch republican. When it comes to getting rid of the monarchy, I cannot trust the other parties," the student said.
The Maoists fought for ten years to oust the monarchy, a war that left at least 13,000 dead and was marked by brutality on all sides.
"I am sad that many Nepalese had to die, but people will soon forget the war. We are hoping for a better future," Shrestha said.
Rhoderick Chalmers, country director for the Brussels-based think-tank the International Crisis Group, said the Maoists also fought the best campaign.
"They were very professional and very dedicated," he said, predicting the Maoists will win between 30 to 40 per cent — shy of an absolute majority — of the seats in the 601-member assembly.
"There would have to be a serious upset now for them not to be the biggest party and the biggest by some significant margin," said Chalmers.
Author and political commentator Khagendra Sangroula, said the preliminary results suggested that "Nepali people have woken up."
"There has been a great stir amongst the Nepali people. They wanted new ideas, alternatives, new faces and possibilities," he said.
"The straight message of this election is a Nepali message: political party leaders are not landlords and this country is not their land."