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Page last updated at 11:59 GMT, Tuesday, 15 April 2008 12:59 UK

Electoral thunderbolt for Nepal

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kathmandu

Prachanda
Prachanda is now Nepal's undisputed senior political leader

Nepal has been rocked by an electoral thunderbolt.

As the Maoists surge towards victory in the elections to a constitutional assembly, even some of their leaders have expressed surprise at its apparent scale.

There are many ways to interpret what is going on.

It is as if the Nepali electorate, starved of the chance to vote for nine years and desperate for lasting peace, have cannily thought of a way to prevent the former rebels going back to conflict.

'Spring clean'

Although the Maoists had said they would not return to rural warfare, they never renounced violence and constantly spoke of urban-based revolt should they lose the election. That is now ruled out.

People have also made it clear that they are fed up with the establishment parties, the Nepali Congress and the mainstream communists known as the UML.

Nepalis dislike their constant squabbling and feel they have failed to provide new faces or ideas, or improve their lives.

By far the most popular Congress figure, student leader Gagan Thapa, was not even given a constituency to contest.

The Maoists' advance has thrown out a swathe of established politicians - Nepali politics has had a "spring clean".

There are big positive reasons for the Maoist windfall, too.

Nepalese soldier
The Maoists may have an uneasy relationship with the army

Their leader, Prachanda, has huge charisma, boosted by a personality cult. A message of "land to the tiller", already tried out in some remote places, has huge appeal in a country of subsistence farmers and labourers.

So too do the promise of deliverance from caste or gender discrimination, or the financially crippling dowry system - changes the Maoists really have set about introducing.

The 10-year insurgency brought issues of deprivation and poverty to prominence.

In business, Maoist trade union mobilisation has in some cases doubled people's pitiful wages.

Their promise not to hamper private enterprise means some entrepreneurs are swinging behind them.

In their own leadership and parliamentary appointees the Maoists have introduced more women and more people from disadvantaged castes and ethnic groups, something they promise to continue.

'Disappearances'

There is another factor, too. Atrocities during the Maoist insurgency were committed by both sides, but in terms of numbers the state killed more people than the Maoists.

"Disappearances" and torture in army barracks, the military bombardment of Maoist gatherings - these and more have swung many behind the ex-guerrillas.

In these uncharted political waters, the Maoists will be keenly watched to see if they can give up their bad old ways and display some vision.

King Gyanendra
The Maoists say they will abolish the monarchy immediately

They have got off to a bad start. A Nepali Congress government minister, Ram Sharan Mahat, has appeared on television, apparently badly beaten up after winning his constituency.

He says the culprits were dozens of members of the Maoists' ex-militia Young Communist League (YCL).

Since emerging 18 months ago the YCL has been constantly accused of similar acts of violence, especially during the election campaign, something the United Nations affirmed.

In the worst scenario they could now become a band of crude, state-sponsored enforcers.

The Maoists also use old-fashioned propaganda. Allegations of their wrongdoing are brushed aside as "conspiracies".

They concentrated much of their insurgency in the schoolroom, forcing children in their hundreds to march off to brainwashing sessions, sometimes for days.

Village schoolteachers were often abducted and killed. The Maoist teacher-training curriculum, witnessed at first hand by the BBC in 2005, included the life of Prachanda and an alphabet of grenades and guns for six-year-olds.

To sustain their party during and since the war, they have relied on extortion, demanding food from destitute peasants.

Conciliatory speech

In many villages they forcibly recruited a member of each family, and to build a showcase road project in the remote west, they used temporary forced labour.

And yet the Maoists' promise of a better society - which was, after all, the reason they went to war - has caught the public's imagination.

Nepalis do seem to have faith in the democratic process. The new assembly will have a two-year term and some voters have said they will kick the Maoists out of government if they disappoint.

Prachanda's reaction to initial Maoist successes was perhaps his most conciliatory speech yet, promising cooperation both at home and abroad.

There are also hopes that this unexpected emerging result could mean more stability and therefore more investment, domestic and foreign, which has long eluded the country.

Going by current trends, the Maoists will have a lot of power, both in running the government and rewriting the constitution. The other main parties have been decimated.

Supporters of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) with Communist flags
The Maoists must now deliver after their election win

The only other parties which have done respectably are those arguing for the rights of southern Nepalese. They could make problems for the Maoists on the ethnic question, but it is difficult to tell where a mainstream opposition will come from.

Ideologically, the Maoists remain textbook communists and will certainly not ditch their title, professing admiration for Mao. But Maoist-watchers say that in government they will be pragmatic, not rigid.

They will soon have to build bridges, for instance to the Nepalese Army, whose right-wing chief vocally opposes the Maoist army's incorporation into its ranks, and also to the United States, which is in great difficulty, having always labelled the Maoists as terrorists.

Left out in the cold are Nepal's monarchists.

Their small parties have been pulverised, and the Maoists' deputy leader, Baburam Bhattarai, has said he expects the monarchy to be abolished within weeks and the Royal Palace to become a museum.

Whatever the apprehensions, there is excitement in the air - a sense of a new start being made.

People have entrusted the immediate future to the erstwhile rebels, and are keenly waiting to see what happens.


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