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Voting For Change In Nepal

Sondra L. Hausner, an anthropologist based in Kathmandu, Nepal, has filed this dispatch about the historic elections taking place there today.

After eight years of continuous rule, American voters and politicians are now fixated on the notion of political change. But if they want to see what the stuff really looks like, the place to turn is the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Nepal.

Today, Nepal--the eternal home of Everest, the temporary home of countless scruffy trekkers, and the cradle of Newari culture--is holding a most remarkable election. Not just because it will be the first that King Gyanendra has allowed in ten years, but because it will almost certainly be the last he oversees. Having come to power amidst a bloody palace coup, and spent much of his rule fighting a civil war, he will watch as his subjects end the Hindu monarchy that has ruled this nation since the 8th century.

Never colonized, Nepal has in recent years had some limited experience with democracy. A parliament was first elected in 1959, though the king dissolved it a year later. A system of village councils was established in 1962, but only members of elite castes could participate, and the king retained exclusive control over all matters of state. When Nepal declared itself a modern democracy for the second time in response to a popular movement that called for a new constitution and a multi-party parliament in 1990, the monarchy was once again not in question.

In 1996, the Maoist wing of the Communist party started an insurrection, crusading against centuries-old caste and gender injustices. The insurgency was violent, and the rebels eventually held much of the countryside in terror. They did succeed, though, in focusing Nepalis’ attention on the injustices of royal rule.

King Gyanendra came to power five years later, after 10 members of the royal family--including his brother, King Birendra--were gunned down at a royal dinner. Gyanendra brought the Royal Nepal Army out in full force against the Maoists, something his slain brother had refused to do. By 2006, the civil war had claimed 13,000 lives (many of them civilians) and the King’s martial law had been in effect for 14 months. Nepal convulsed into three weeks of massive, angry demonstrations that state police could not control.

Gyanendra had no choice but to step down, relinquishing his ruler-takes-all position. His Majesty’s Government was quickly renamed the Government of Nepal. A cease-fire between the government and the Maoists followed. An interim government removed the Army from the King’s control, and declared itself a secular state, not a Hindu one.

In the two years since, political parties vying for legitimacy have wrangled over what to do with the monarchy. Last fall, the Maoists made clear that their constituents would come to the voting booths only if the monarchy were completely abolished. In late December, the interim government agreed.

In the final days before the vote, political tensions are running high, and at least eight people have been killed in eruptions of violence. A few bombs have even exploded.

Nevertheless, spirits in the capital are buoyant. Hundreds of international observers, including President Jimmy Carter, are jetting in to monitor the proceedings, and the country is preparing for what many are calling an “election festival”: five days “poll holiday” so people can go home-- some to remote mountain districts--to vote, to be immediately followed by springtime festivities for the Nepali New Year.

In a span of ten years, the majority of Nepalis have gone from believing that the king is the only force powerful enough to unite a nation of 60 different ethnicities to believing that their country would be better off without him. And in a span of barely twenty-four months, Nepal will go from being the world’s only Hindu kingdom to the world’s newest democratic republic. As for Gyanendra, he will go from being a feudal monarch to being the end point for three dynasties that ruled for 1200 years, his own lineage, and the institution of monarchy in Nepal. No matter how many seats they win in Thursday’s elections, the Maoists can claim this final victory.

--Sondra L. Hausner