Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > July 5, 2008 > Nepal Constituent Assembly Election 2008: An Observer’s Account

Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 29

Nepal Constituent Assembly Election 2008: An Observer’s Account

Friday 11 July 2008, by Uddhab P Pyakurel

Many Nepalese and foreigners who have been carefully watching and following the political developments of Nepal have been surprised by the results of the Constituent Assembly (CA) election which was held on April 10, 2008. There were many pre-poll surveys, guesses etc. regarding the possible election results. There were arguments that voters would again favour the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) to be the first and second largest political forces as they were after the 1990 polls. There were several forecasts that the Maoists (the former rebels) would get considerable votes and be in the third position after the NC and CPN-UML. However, the election placed the Maoists in the first rank with a huge margin and the poll outcome proved most of the predictions to be wrong. After the election, there are people who argue that the election was not free and fair. They state that the result was the product of intimidation and coercion by the Maoists. Another section of people believe that the victory of the Maoists in the election was obvious as it is quite a popular party in Nepal. Given the background, people around the world are now trying to analyse how almost all the pre-poll presumptions went wrong; and what are the factors which favoured the Maoists at the last moment to win the election.

Pre-election Situation

Being a Nepali citizen, as well as a researcher, I was/am also closely observing Nepal’s recent political situation. Though I am in Delhi for my research, I often visit Nepal as well as its rural areas. I visited many parts of the country like Salyan, Surkhet, Dang and Nuwakot during the time of the nominations filed by candidates; I also visited about a dozen constituencies of different districts just before the election. Again, I travelled at least 20 km by road and on foot and visited nine polling booths on the day of the election, to observe the election related activities. On the basis of my field study and observations, I want to share some points about the poll which surprised the whole world.

Till April 7, that is, three days before the Election Day, I also thought that the Maoists will emerge as the third largest political force with 17-25 per cent of the total votes. However, I was compelled to change my view when I entered the rural areas, started talking to the voters and observing the pre-poll situation in the different villages. The change came about due to the reluctance of the voters to talk about the election. Those who could frankly involve themselves in the political discussion and argue for and against the parties in the past were silent just before the election. I got an indication that there was something wrong. I tried to find out the cause behind the silence or reluctance of the voters, but could not fathom it immediately.

Rasuwa was the district which I visited just one day prior to the election. As it is my neighbouring district and quite close to my polling booth, I visited the polling booth and went to Laharepauwa Village Development Committee (VDC) of Rasuwa. Again, I was interested in visiting that VDC because of the fact that both the NC and CPN-UML candidates of Rasuwa were from there. While I started talking about the election, a teacher from one of the primary schools argued:

Since the state is not able to provide security to the leaders and candidates, how will it give us security? In this situation, it is better not to be so active. If the election takes place, we hope that we will be able to enter the polling centres and cast our vote. However, there is no situation by which we can mobilise ourselves in the election.

Another person, who seemed to be an NC sympathiser, added:
Our candidate is in hospital. The NC led government could not give security to him. If we go for the election campaign, we have to convince the people that NC will take the responsibility for peace and security as it is our slogan in the election. How will people believe us? That is why we are feeling hesitant to go for the election campaign.

These arguments reflected the reality of Rasuwa where the NC candidate, Bal Chandra Paudel, was hospitalised after being physically beaten by the Maoists during his election campaign. Though it was one day before the election, people were not very enthusiastic about the election; and I have not seen the people who were mobilised in preparing for the election the next day.

After Rasuwa, my destination was Nuwakot constituency Number Three in which one of the senior Maoists leaders, Post Bahadur Bogati, along with others, was the candidate for the CA. From Laharepauwa of Rasuwa, I crossed the Trisuli River and entered Bogati’s own village named Tupche to observe the pre-election situation. When I crossed the Trisuli River, I met one of my relatives on the way. She enquired about my destination and my well-being. When I told her about my intention of visiting Tupche, she tried to stop me on the way and said: “Many Maoists are mobilised in the village. They may manhandle you, as you are new for them. It is better not to go there this time.†I tried to convince her. However, she argued: “The Maoists need only some pretext and they want to terrorise the people anyway before the election. If they find some money in your pocket, they may take it and argue that they were stopping someone who was trying to buy votes from the people.†Finally, I was compelled to disclose my identity as an election observer to convince her.

As mentioned earlier, it was just one day before the Election Day when I visited Tupche. The villagers did not appear very enthusiastic. Very few people were moving around. Most of them were confined to their respective homes. She was right that there were some young Maoist supporters mobilised in the village. I could locate plenty of NC and CPN-UML flags put up in the houses but no groups of the NC and CPN-UML were seen on the way. I took two-three breaks on the way during the visit and tried to initiate the election debate. However, I found that people were trying to avoid the debate. They were praying that nothing would happen till the next day, that is, the Day of the Election.

Finally I returned to my own home which is in Nuwakot constituency Number Two in the evening. As it is a common practice in the village to have discussions with neighbours in evening time, some of the members of our village assembled at my house and started discussing about the contemporary situation. In between, my mother came and told us that this is not right time to assemble and discuss about politics. She further argued: “The incidents of beating, manhandling and defaming the opponents have increased due to the Maoists’ in recent days. It is not the election as it was before. If you continue this discussion, someone may come and something may happen here too. Therefore, it is better to stop such a discussion now. It is advisable to go to the polling booths early in the morning and come back as soon as possible after casting the vote. This is not the right time to be in the polling booths the whole the day. All are scared that something may happen.†After her repeated requests, we stopped the discussion and went to bed early. Before going to bed, she again requested us to close the room properly before sleeping.

Whether the Intimidation was the Wish of the Maoist Leadership

When I recall the whole narrative mentioned above, I remember a telephonic conversation with a friend who was close to the Maoists. The conversation took place a couple of days prior to my visit, while I was still in Delhi. When several intimidating activities of the Maoists were being exposed, I had discussed with the friend about the Maoist leadership’s reluctance to stop these activities. I had thought that perhaps the Maoists were losing more at the national and international level by such activities. However, his understanding was just the opposite of my understanding. He tried to convince me that those activities were the last weapons which the Maoists would use and that they would get considerable votes only if they continue these activities. According to him, such intimidations were the deliberate attempt by the Maoists to terrorise the people. He also told me that Prachanda, while addressing a meeting of his cadres, instructed them not to stop, but to continue these activities. I wondered and asked him about the rationale behind such activities. He just replied: “You will see their implication during the election.â€

What I saw on Election Day

Keeping all the above mentioned narratives in mind, I went to the polling booth early in the morning, as I had to cast the vote first and then visit as many polling booths as possible to observe the election. However, I could not cast the vote in the beginning, as there was already a long queue before I reached. After spending an hour in the queue, I ultimately cast my vote and started the other job, that is, to visit more polling booths as an election observer. That day, I was able to visit 11 different polling booths of Nuwakot.

Observing the election was not a new assignment for me. I had observed the two last parliamentary elections in 1994 and 1999. The location also was not different. However, the scenario differed in this election from those of the earlier elections. The difference was seen not only around the polling booths, but also on the way to the booths and in the village itself. Some of my observations are as follow:

1. Earlier, people used to think of the Election Day as a day of festival. Most of the voters used to stay in the booth premises the whole the day, even after they had cast their vote. They used to utilise the day to meet friends, share their feelings etc. Each and every party used to set up at least a stall close to the polling booth to serve food and snacks to their sympathisers. The objective behind such a management was to win their votes and get the support of the voters, and to stop others if they wanted to disturb the poll with a common effort. Such a gathering would also back the polling agents to perform their roles if there was something wrong. However, this time many people went back to their respective homes immediately after casting their vote. There were no stalls set up by parties, except by the Maoists. When I visited some Maoist stalls I came to know that those who left the polling booths were mostly the voters of other parties like the NC, CPN-UML, RPP etc. I talked to some of them on the way while they were going back to their homes and asked them about the reason behind their leaving the polling booth immediately after casting their note. The common answer was: “Due to security reasons.†“We think that something will happen during the election. Therefore, we came early to cast our votes and are going back soon. If something happens here, who will save us? You know the fact that there is no government to provide security to us. Police do nothing to those Maoists who create an uproar,†one middle-aged woman from a group of people replied.

2. In the past, people used to hang around whenever there was a dispute between the polling agents of different candidates if they suspected that someone was trying to cast a proxy vote. If one agent favoured the casting of such a proxy vote, all others would resort to hangama to prevent such an exercise. However, this time the presence of all agents, except the Maoists’ agents, was just a mere formality. In the presence of all agents, an 11-year old girl child, who was there as a guest, cast a vote in the Bageswari polling booth without any obstacle. One of the agents who belonged to an NC candidate mentioned, after the polling was over, that when he tried to stop proxy voters, the Maoists’ agent threatened him with dire consequences. According to him, he himself also allowed some proxy voters to vote. However, he found no one from the NC side who dared to cast the vote. “Our supporters were afraid and did not come to counter the Maoists even if they attempt unfair activities. For our voters what mattered was only the holding of peaceful election. We did not bother if someone cast proxy votes,†he said.

3. Talking about confidentiality of the polling booths, it was also unique this time. All the ballot boxes were placed outside near the queue of voters, even if there was sufficient space available inside the booth. This situation helped those who thought that the Maoists have such instruments which would let them know about who casts the vote and from where. Since the ballot box was in the open, it was obvious that people were scared about the confidentiality of their votes.

4. There were security personnel employed in the booths. As the government had helped to reduce their morale, there was no expectation that the security forces would perform their job. In the given situation, they were looking more like mute witnesses, than an authority employed to provide security.

After the election was over, I found the reality that people were passive and frightened only because of a sense of insecurity. When the Maoists started spreading the activities of beating/manhandling the opponent candidates of the CA, disturbing the meetings of others, stopping voters from entering the constituencies, and when the people saw the incompetent role of the government to stop such activities, most of the NC and CPN-UML sympathisers were compelled to be passive in the villages. Apart from observing the situation, I talked to the people about the styles and strategies applied by different parties during the election campaign. According to the voters, most of the candidates were seen in the village for the campaign. However, there was a fundamental difference between the Maoists and others: the Maoists tried to convince the voters first; if the voters were not convinced, they resorted to threatening the people. Similarly, voters were told by the Maoists either to vote for them or be ready to face the situation as it was during the “people’s war†.

Though there are reports that the Maoists in the different parts of the country threatened a large number of the people and compelled them to favour the CPN-Maoist, I met very few people in my area who complained about the Maoists personally threatening them. However, the repeated media reports about the Maoists’ activities in the different parts of the country forced the people to be subjected to a sort of psychological terror. As each and every household has access to the electronic media, the voters were kept fully informed about the day-to-day coercive activities and electoral violence of the Maoists. The objective of the media was not to terrorise the people, but to put pressure on the Maoists to refrain from activities by letting the people know about the realities. However, I found that the people took the media reports rather differently, that is, as security failure posing a common threat to them. All the accounts mentioned above—the arguments of two gentlemen of Rasuwa, my relative of Tupche, my mother, and the voters who were on their way to go back home immediately after they voted—reflected a kind of sense of terror, or feeling of insecurity.

In the evening of the Election Day, after the polling was over, I again dialled the number of my friend and told him that I had come to know about the implication of the repeated terrorising activities of the Maoists even after heavy national and international criticism. He laughed loudly and asked me about the facts and findings of my observation. I shared the fact that the Maoists succeeded in leaving a trail of physiological terror on its opponents, which helped them to control the villages without adequate manpower. He said as earlier: “It was a deliberate and strategically decided attempt by the Maoists. If they did not repeat such activities before the election, the cadres of the NC and CPN-UML would be so active that they would be able to push the Maoists into the corner. The Maoists really succeeded in this regard. They are champions in adopting a strategy to face any adverse condition.â€

After the conversation, I suddenly recalled an incident of such terror: though there was no activity of the Maoists during the “people’s war†, people from the Maoist free zone were frightened on just hearing the name of the Maoists. It was around 1998, when the “people’s war†was in a preliminary stage, that a poster of the “people’s war†was stuck outside the club for the first time in our village. After knowing about the poster, a nine-year old boy came to me and in an excited tone said: “Uncle, uncle, I saw a Maoist in our club. Don’t go there.†I asked him to show me the Maoist. But he said: “I saw the Maoist pasted on the wall of our club. Please, don’t go there.†The boy had seen several such posters before. But, the poster distressed him as he listened more about the Maoists’ activities in negative terms. During the “people’s war†, people would easily lose their heart when they encountered Maoists. There were many incidents where people were cheated by dacoits and others in the name of the Maoists. They used to carry dummy guns and ask for money in the name of donation for the Maoists. All these things happened due to the fact that the people who were not in touch with the Maoists conceived the “people’s war†as an instrument of terror.

Here, I can’t blame the Maoists alone for being responsible for a such a fear psyohosis among the voters. The government and its security agencies were also equally responsible, as they could not ensure a feeling of security to the people. As we are in the transition from the warfare situation to that of peace, it was the responsibility of the government to assess the situation and develop a mechanism to overcome the weaknesses. Just a couple of weeks before the Election Day, the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) issued a press release concerning the repeated warnings, threats and intimidations by the Maoists, which resulted in a state of fear in the community at large. It also pointed out that a number of commanders and members of the Maoists’ army were involved in the election activities which, according to the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA), was a serious violation of the agreements and accords signed by the government and the Maoists. However, the government did not feel it necessary to take note of these accounts even if a responsible partner of the CPA raised it. Ultimately, such terror toctics created a vacuum with the absence of other parties in the political field in the villages, polling booths etc., and helped the Maoists to play their role there.

Outside Observers and their Limitations

When I came back to Kathmandu the day after the election, I had an opportunity to share my experiences with some international election observers. The peaceful environment of the polling booths surprised most of them. As most of the voters came in the morning and left the booths immediately after the vote, there was no doubt that there was a peaceful situation prevailing during the entire day.

Some of them were anticipating violence during the poll. Those who were in Kathmandu and Pokhara to observe the election were arguing that they never saw such a peaceful environment in the election. They were more impressed by the long queues of voters much before the poll started. When I shared my experiences with them, they endorsed their limitations as outside observers and said: “Without observing the background and without going out of the booths, no one could understand why the peace prevailed and why they came early in the morning to the polling stations before the poll started.â€

I met a team of the international observers from the European Union (EU) in the Betrawtai polling station in the Pasang Lyamhu highway in the morning. I tried to discuss with them but they were busy capturing the scenes of the booth in their cameras. Before I left the booth, I as an observer asked one of the members of the EU team about their next destination. However, she said that it would be decided after they discussed with the team. But she disclosed that they had no plan to visit the polling booths which are in remote areas and with poor accessibility. Except the EU team in the Betrawati pooling booth, I saw no other international observer in booths where there was no road access. After I talked to the international observers in Kathmandu, it was more than clear that that they hardly travelled on foot to observe the election in the polling booths situated in the remote areas.

Conclusion

Before concluding, I want to make it clear that it is not my intention to say that the Maoists won the election only by coercion and intimidation. As the Maoists were popular in the urban areas, especially among the urban labourers, obviously they got votes from many of them. They also got a considerable number of votes from the people of the different marginalised communities. We have to respect the people who cast their votes in favour of the Maoists of their own volition. At the same time it is our duty to disclose the reality to the world about the reasons behind the unexpected results of the CA election, and what were the factors which helped to change the result at the last minute.

Before I decided to write my experiences, I talked to the people from different parts of the country, read different reports and checked whether my experience was exceptional. When I came to know that the scenario was mostly similar, I decided to write this account. Apart from the instances of intimidations and coercion, the inclusive character of the candidates, fresh and attractive slogans, radical agenda, spirit of the cadres, dynamic strategy etc. were the strengths of the Maoists to deftly manoeuvre the pre-election situation to reap benefits. On the other hand, old candidates, old slogans, old agenda, internal rivalries etc. were the bane of the NC and CPN-UML, which also helped the Maoists to attract the voters. Likewise, the government’s failure to provide security to the candidates and sympathisers of different parties, and the coercion of the Maoists were equally responsible in terrifying the people, which suddenly helped to change the election results.

However, those who lost the election need not feel hopeless by the outcome because there will be more elections if we are able to reinforce democracy in the country. As the Maoists have repeatedly made their commitments to democracy and adult franchise, we should take these to watch their modus operandi under their own leadership in the CA and the government as well. Simultaneously, the other parties should take a lesson from these experiences and think of how to strengthen the security of the public in future elections.

The author is a Research Scholar, Centre for the Study of the Social Systems (Sociology), School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at: upyakurel@gmail.com

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62 Privacy Policy Notice Addressed to Online Readers of Mainstream Weekly in view of European data privacy regulations (GDPR)
Notice to Readers: A technical upgrade is underway and addition of new content on the site is currently on hold. We hope to resume publishing of new online content from Mainstream Weekly, As soon as possible.