Bombs and Bandhs: Election Time in Nepal

On Tuesday, the entire city shut down as Nepal held its first elections in five years, and voted for a new Constituent Assembly (CA) for the country. For those you of (read: majority) who aren’t up to speed on Nepali politics and history, here is a little crash course:

Nepal, for years, was ruled by a monarchy.

From 1996-2006 there was a civil war, also called the Maoist conflict, because it was headed up by the Maoist party looking to overthrow and replace the monarchy.

In 2006 the war ended, in 2007 Nepal was declared a federal republic, and in 2008 they held their first elections, electing a Constituent Assembly, the majority of seats of which were won by the Communist Party of Nepal (aka CPN aka Maoists).

The newly formed CA was charged with writing a constitution. They failed to meet their deadline.

They got an extended deadline. They failed to meet this one, too.

In 2012 they had STILL failed to meet their deadline and to write a constitution, so it was announced that they would have elections that November.

They did not.

They finally set the ACTUAL date for November 19, 2013.

In the months leading up to the election, the Maoists did everything they could to try and get the elections canceled. They held bandhs, or strikes, where everything was closed and no cars or vehicles could drive on the roads for fear of being vandalized. Starting November 10th, they threatened to hold a 10-day long bandh that would shut down the city and keep the elections from happening. This lasted only a day or two, with people deciding that they did not want to just go with it, and going out on the roads and opening their businesses anyways.

This did not stop everything, though.

Bombs were found in the city. Fake bombs real bombs. Some went off, injuring people, which is perhaps one of the things that has been most reported in the (two that I can find) articles published. The point, again, being to scare people into not holding the elections.

This, again, did not work! It was, however, a bit scary.

Tuesday their first elections were held in five years. Public spaces (such as the basketball court where the vegetable market is held by my house) were roped off on Monday to create polling locations.

Ping pong played on a sunny day off from school.
Ping pong played on a sunny day off from school.

Because many Nepalis are illiterate, the ballot was made up of symbols printed onto the paper. Each of the 120+ parties vying for the votes chose a symbol to represent them. Everything from a tree to a sun to bowling pins to hands pressed together. This way everyone would be able to vote, literate or not.

The government declared a four-day long public holiday, starting Sunday, so that people could go back to their villages to vote.

There was a threat of strict bandhs on buses, which would prevent people from leaving and going home to vote, but that did not happen, people got home, people voted.

I stayed inside all day on Tuesday, though, because there was still the threat of being caught up in a rally, or run into a bomb, real or fake.

And on Wednesday? All was well, people returned, slowly, to the city, kids returned to school. All was well. They had voted, and in time the results will come out.

Military doing drills in a practice field in the middle of the city.
Military doing drills in a practice field in the middle of the city.

So far it looks like the Nepali Congress party (symbol: tree) will win, which, at least according to the Nepali’s I have asked, is a good thing.

So why is it so hard for them to come to a decision on a constitution? Well, to start with, the country is incredibly diverse. Within the one country they have trouble just starting to consider how to divide it up into states.

Nepal is made up of 26.5 million people, with a literacy rate of 63% for men, yet only 35% for women. 81% are Hindu, 9% are Buddhist, 10% other. It has more than 100 different ethnic groups, an even greater number of languages (125 and 127 respectively, as reported by the New York Times), and three different ecosystems, ranging in altitude from only 60 feet above sea level to 29,029 feet above sea level (hello, Mt. Everest).

View of the snowcaps from the big city
View of the snowcaps from the big city

And this is just part of it.

There are many problems: poverty, diversity and the lack of opportunity for women in the country being just a few of them. Many people have migrated to Kathmandu as a result of the war, and to look for jobs, but many times these jobs are not available. Or they do not have the education or skills sets to get them. Of the nearly 7,000,000 people living in the Kathmandu valley, at least half go home each year to their villages, they are not from here.

There is a great risk of natural disaster, too. Nepal is susceptible to frequent earthquakes, but Kathmandu is in no way built to withstand a major one. There are so many people and so many buildings so close together that it is really quite a frightening thought of what would happen, or will happen, when they get a big one. They are supposed to get a major one once within every 100 years, and the last one was at least 80 years go. So there is that.

It is hard, still, to figure out what to think about the election, or what is going to happen. It is so hard to get a good news source that will say anything of substance that I think the trick is really just to wait and see what happens.

Hopefully this new government will provide stability and a good constitution. Hopefully it will address some of the major issues that face Nepal. Hopefully it will do its job. And until then, we wait. We celebrate the fact that the elections happened at all, and we wait to see what change they bring for the future of a little Himalayan country with so much to offer.


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