Maoists talk up their chances in Nepal's election

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 April, 2008, 12:00am

On his last day of campaigning, Maoist chairman Prachanda was playing man of the people - shaking hands with babies and muddying his shoes in the lanes of Kirtipur, a constituency just outside Nepal's capital.

With a little prompting from his minders, locals lined up to greet a smiling Prachanda, throwing flower petals over his head and smearing his face with red powder as a blessing.

It has been less than two years since Prachanda was first seen in public in Kathmandu after leading a 10-year guerilla war from 'underground'. But with a historic election days away, he was full of optimism.

'There is a wave in favour of our political agenda, in favour of our party. We are feeling very confident,' said Prachanda as he walked flanked by police and armed Maoist security personnel.

The electoral battle for Kirtipur and its surrounding area is a gamble for the once-elusive Maoist leader: a loss for the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), or CPN-M, within the Kathmandu Valley would be humiliating, but a win would be a symbolic victory for a movement that once controlled much of rural Nepal but never the capital.

However, the Maoist leader, whose real name is Pushpa Kamal Dahal, is covering his bets by also competing for a seat in the Maoist stronghold of Rolpa district - Nepal's election rules allow candidates to compete in more than one constituency.

The vote on Thursday will elect a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the country's constitution, decide on the fate of the king and act as an interim legislature.

The election is one of the key parts of a peace deal signed by the government and Maoists in late 2006, ending a civil war that cost about 13,000 lives. Campaigning has been undermined by intimidation and violence, with one candidate of a minor party assassinated and eight Maoist cadres killed.

While the Maoists have been the biggest victims of election-related killings, the UN said the Maoists and their youth wing were most responsible for non-fatal attacks against other parties.

Maoist threats had made many villages no-go zones for other political parties, election observers said.

The Maoists are talking up the prospect of winning the election outright, but political analysts say there is slim chance of that if the election is reasonably free and fair. Most pundits guess the Maoists will secure about 100 of the 601 seats.

Much depends on what happens on Thursday. The violence and intimidation during the campaign - as well as vote-rigging in previous polls - mean observers are expecting further malpractice on the day.

Because of Nepal's complex split-system voting procedures, results will not be known until late in the month at the earliest, and repolling in trouble spots may add weeks to the schedule. The Maoists have said they will accept 'any verdict of the masses' but have already laid out an escape route if the election does not go their way.

'We will lose only if there is a conspiracy,' Prachanda told supporters at a Kathmandu rally, adding that the United States, India and royalists were trying to sabotage the Maoists' chances of winning.

Maoist ideologue Babarum Bhattarai echoed the line, telling rallies across the country that, in the event of rigging, 'we can seize power in 10 minutes if we lose in elections'.

But with the Nepal Army on high alert, some see that threat as merely pre-election chest-beating.

'I think they would only reject the result outright if they were completely wiped out,' said Rhoderick Chalmers of the International Crisis Group, which is monitoring the election.

Considering Nepal's woeful security situation even before the election, some observers have been surprised at the amount of normal campaigning.

'The Maoists certainly have engaged in some systematic attacks but equally have put together an extremely well-organised, persistent campaign,' Dr Chalmers said.

The Maoists' message of radical change in the impoverished Himalayan nation was well received by some in Kirtipur.

'Still today we are in poverty, so we want to give our votes to Prachanda,' resident Narayan Sharma said.