Nepal can ill afford violence at the polls

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 April, 2008, 12:00am

Nepal's hopes of being lifted from the dismal circumstances it has been mired in for more than a decade hinge on today's elections. Centred on a peace deal with Maoist rebels two years ago, the vote aims to turn the nation into a republic by electing an assembly to draw up a new constitution that will ditch the monarchy.

The process seems straightforward, but there is nothing simple about it. Violence that scarred the nation throughout the rebel insurgency has re-emerged in the lead-up to the polls and if it continues today, will undermine their credibility. Political leaders and the government have to do their utmost to stem the unrest.

Elections are an important facet of democracy, but they have to be held in free and fair circumstances. This has certainly not been the case so far during campaigning. The violence constituted candidate intimidation and an attempt to scare off voters.

Nepal has great potential for development. Boasting many of the world's tallest mountains, tourism plays an important part. Rich agricultural land in the south offers a strong base from which to grow. Low wages are an incentive for foreign investors.

But a series of events starting with the Maoist insurgency in 1996 eroded the promises the introduction of democracy six years earlier created. The shooting dead in 2001 of most of the royal family by the crown prince, who then killed himself, scarred the national psyche. The new king, Gyanendra, took back direct rule shortly after and until the peace deal was signed, reigned with an iron fist. Nepal, as a result, is among the world's poorest countries.

Despite the elections offering so much opportunity, sectors of society do not want them to go ahead. Royalists and splinter Maoist factions have no need for democracy. Minority political parties claiming to have been left out of the process want a boycott. Armed groups fighting for autonomy in the southern plains want strikes.

Authorities and political groups must try to ensure that the election is more peaceful than the campaigning. The parties that win must work closely and harmoniously to build Nepal afresh. Every effort has to be made to include marginalised communities so that all grievances can be tackled. The Constituent Assembly is as much about nation building as state building. Nepali identity has to be redefined. This can happen only if the first step - well-run elections free of violence - is attained.