Page last updated at 04:09 GMT, Saturday, 5 April 2008 05:09 UK

Nepal Maoists seek election backing

Solo woman dancer in Gadhuwa
Nepal's former Maoist rebels are fighting elections for the first time

Ahead of Nepal's elections on 10 April, the BBC's Charles Haviland witnesses Maoist campaigning in Dang, in the west of the country.

It is a baking afternoon in the village of Gadhuwa. Before a crowd of hundreds, 10 young Maoists - five in military fatigues and five in baggy white pyjamas with red sashes - gyrate and march under red-bannered slogans.

"Shoulder to shoulder, let's build a new Nepal," sings the Maoist chorus.

The pentatonic music seems like a throwback to old-fashioned Communism.

The dance routines owe more than a little to Bollywood. Later, a solo woman dancer dressed in red and green is accompanied by harmonium and percussion. The crowd applauds warmly.

On a library building just behind, the Maoists' youth wing, the Young Communist League (YCL), have daubed graffiti.

"If the youths desire it, the whole country from East to West will awaken," it says.

New assembly

In a cloud of pink vermilion powder, garlanded Maoist leaders take the podium.

One reminds the crowd of army atrocities in the 10-year civil conflict which ended in 2006. Another warns a rival party candidate that his "legs will be broken" if he visits the village.

Krishna Bahadur Mahara speaks in Gadhuwa
In that time we raised the gun, but this time we are moving from the ballot
Krishna Bahadur Mahara

Maoist mass meetings are nothing new. But for the first time, the former rebels - still viewed as terrorist by the US - are fighting elections. Nepalis are now judging how serious they are about democratic politics.

Thursday's election will elect an assembly to write a new constitution.

"All janajatis, Dalits, Muslims and Madhesis will win," bellows the most senior Maoist present, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, referring to the country's pluralism that has become an issue in the past year.

Mr Mahara, the Maoists' longstanding spokesman and now information minister in Nepal's interim government, is standing in the neighbouring constituency. We follow him for a day's campaigning.

Divided voters

In tiny villages Mr Mahara is warm and intimate, meeting villagers under ancient, gnarled trees and talking about their problems. Armed police stand by, relaxed as they mingle with Maoist activists - another sign of changing times.

I totally blame the Maoists - you can see everywhere, currently they are killing members of the other political parties too
Male student

"In that time we raised the gun, but this time we are moving from the ballot," Mr Mahara tells the BBC. "I am very happy because the people are very favourable towards a new party, new agenda, new leadership and new ideology."

Judging from another electoral meeting at a college in the town of Ghorahi, he is only half right. The reactions of two male students epitomised the divided views of the Nepalese electorate.

"We favour him because the long war┐ brings a new type of society and culture," one said. "[The] fight is for the good purpose, Maoist fight, for making the people powerful."

The other was critical.

"I totally blame the Maoists," he said. "You can see everywhere, currently they are killing members of the other political parties too."

Even if the Maoists won seats in the new parliament, he suggested, they would "never win the hearts of the people".

Pre-election violence

Here in what they regard as their heartland, the Maoists cannot count on public support.

Dev Shankar Paudyal, injured worker of a mainstream party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist)
Opponents claim the Maoists have intimidated voters across Nepal

In fact they have lost more activists than any other party in pre-election violence which has claimed around 10 lives.

But they are also the most widely blamed for initiating the violence, usually by attacking other parties' election meetings.

In a hospital ward in the capital, Kathmandu, lie several members of the biggest mainstream communist party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist).

Several have head injuries after being attacked by the Maoists' Young Communist League, armed with beer bottles, stones and sticks.

"They threatened the people of the area that if they didn't vote for the Maoists, there would be a funeral shroud in every house," said one of the wounded, Raju Karki.

"Anyone coming to our rally was also threatened. They said: 'If you attend, we'll come to your house tomorrow and beat you'."

Maoist legacy

But in Dang, a Maoist military leader, Brigade Commander Santosh, gives us the official party line - that the former guerrillas are stopping the use of weapons - although his rhetoric remains tough.

He heads Sakram, one of the 28 camps around the country in which the Maoists' army is confined in the run-up to the polls.

Maoist fighters in Sakram
Only the shape and method of the war is different - now we are in a political war, so we're not using our weapons
Commander Santosh

"Until the people get power and sovereignty, and make their own laws, the war will go on," he says.

"Only the shape and method of the war is different. Now we are in a political war, so we're not using our weapons."

The 652 former fighters in Sakram, both men and women, will all be able to vote in a local polling station. But the long-term future of the Maoist army - whether, for instance, it can be merged with the Nepalese Army - remains unclear.

Dang does illustrate the Maoists' legacy.

In Ghorahi lies the massive and heavily mined government army barracks, where in 2001 the Maoists first drew government forces into the bitter war by launching a lightening attack which killed many.

But the remoter hills merge into the Maoists' "base area", the region where they started their "revolution".

On the positive front, they tried to erode caste discrimination and promote the freedom of women. But they also killed people, tried to impose social engineering, and extorted money from even the poorest people - something which continues.

The people of Dang, as elsewhere, are now considering whether to give the former rebels their blessing.

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