April 15, 2008
The Carter Center has been deeply involved in Nepal since 2003 in attempting to assist with ending a 10-year revolutionary war and find a peaceful resolution of differences among the political factions. I visited Nepal in June and November 2007 to help encourage an election for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, and our team gathered these last few days to monitor the twice-postponed event. We have maintained a staff of long-term election observers for more than fifteen months. They have visited all 75 districts and had an opportunity to become familiar with the entire nation and its various and conflicting political factions.
After our arrival from Atlanta, we joined Dr. John Hardman and began receiving extensive briefings from former U.S Ambassador Peter Burleigh, David Pottie, Darren Nance, Sarah Levit-Shore, and others. Most of our 60 international observers, from 21 nations, had been deployed to the more remote areas by helicopter, all-terrain vehicles, and by foot. My co-chairman was Dr. Surakiart Sathirathai, former deputy prime minister of Thailand, who was a key partner and essential to the mission's success. Our team was joined by international observers from the European Union, Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), and by several thousand domestic observers.
During the months since the king returned power to an elected government, the three major parties (Nepali Congress, Maoists, and United Marxist-Leninist) had debated vociferously about the election procedure and the composition of the constitutional assembly. After two postponed elections, in June and November, they finally agreed on a complex electoral formula for a 601-member legislative body. Once constituted, it would serve as the governing authority for a period of about two years while producing a constitution and the basic laws for a republic to replace the Hindu kingdom that had survived for about 240 years.
There would, in effect, be two simultaneous elections. One would be a First Past the Post (a plurality wins) choice based on voting for members (identified by party symbols, not names) to represent 240 geographic districts. There would be a separate proportional representation (PR) ballot for parties with 335 members allocated by the proportion of nationwide votes received. In addition, 26 members would be appointed by the new cabinet. These PR candidate lists of each major party had to include 50 percent women, 38 percent Janajatis (indigenous groups), 31 percent Madhesis (southerners, near India), 13 percent Dalits (untouchables), and 30 percent other groups. A person could represent more than one category, such as a Madhesi Dalit female. This will mean, for instance, that the final constituent assembly will include about 25-30 percent women.
The Maoists had insisted that the entire election be based on proportional representation only, but had to settle for the compromise described above. After election results are known, final decisions regarding the identity of delegates will be made, in large part, by the party leaders. In any case, it is a great step forward in giving formerly excluded people a role in government, including more women than almost any other country in the world.
On our first day, we had a good briefing at breakfast by U.S. Ambassador Nancy Powell and then met with Prime Minister and NC party chairman G.P. Koirala, UML party chairman M.K. Nepal, and Maoist chairman Prachanda and deputy Dr. Bhattarai. All three seemed genuinely confident of a great victory by his party, with expectations of becoming the next prime minister. We also met with the Election Commission, which has done a commendable job in preparing Nepal for these elections , and had a briefing by IFES and NDI on the details of election laws and the exact procedure for voting. Later, I gave private interviews to the local news media, and we attended receptions hosted by the British ambassador and the Election Commission.
We began the next day, Wednesday, with a breakfast session with British Ambassador Andrew Hall, who had spent his younger days doing anthropological research in the high mountains of Nepal. His government, along with the Danish, Canadians, and Belgians, has been one of the key donors of our election observation mission. We then visited a key diplomat in Nepal, Indian Ambassador Shiv Shankar Mukherjee. The Prime Minister and others always make it plain that they are most sensitive to Indian influence, since the 1150-mile shared southern border is open to the passage of goods and people. They were the ones who, in effect, helped to hold the coalitions together during the recent difficult months of negotiation and encouraged the peace process, including holding a constituent assembly election. The ambassador was quite concerned about the future training and employment of about 100,000 young Maoists during the post-combat years.
Young Communist League leaders Ganeshman Pun and Dilip Prajapati reported to us that they have approximately 500,000 members, that the old-line politicians have lost political support, and that they were confident of victory. We tried to convince them that almost everyone would be disappointed on election day, and they professed a willingness to accept even disappointing results.
As always on an observer mission, we met with the leaders of other international observer delegations – this time with the European Union and ANFREL. Each of them deployed about 100 observers, and we provided them as much information as possible based on the extended presence in Nepal of our superb long-term observers. It was important that we coordinate as much as possible our public assessments of the electoral process to avoid confusion among the public and in the news media. Later, we exchanged ideas with the representatives of the United Nations Elections Experts Monitoring Team and a number of smaller groups.
We then met, as on all my visits, with Chief of Army Staff General Rookmangud Katawal, whose armed forces still remain in barracks as long as the Maoist cadres remain in their encampments. After the long conflict, he is justifiably protective of the integrity of his 95,000 troops.
On election day we visited as many polling sites as possible in the valley that surrounds Kathmandu and found the election commission's procedures were being largely followed. There were long and separate lines of men and women in a celebratory mood, the total turnout being above 60 percent. Despite some problems, our observers throughout the nation found the same situation among a total of 400 sites visited. Ballot boxes were required to be delivered to 75 central locations for counting, and we observed a number of these procedures.
Our primary concern was that the Maoists would fare so poorly that they would take up arms again, but as the election results trickled in it became obvious that they would win an amazing victory. We won't have the final returns for about ten more days, but they seem certain to be the largest party, with the UML party suffering most. There were more than 100 contested poll results out of 9,821, which is a lower percentage than in previous elections. There will be repolling during the following week.
After we received some early indicative returns, we met with leaders of the major parties and two of the old royalist groups. The prime minister was obviously shaken, having seen his family members lose what had been considered safe districts. The UML leader lost both of his contests and resigned as leader of the party. We urged Prachanda and Bhattarai to be modest in victory, generous to the other parties, and to maintain their previous commitment to form a coalition government. They promised all these things, and to maintain peace, democracy, free enterprise, and economic progress.
After receiving reports from returning observer teams, we had a news conference, a group photograph, and a going-away supper. There were many reported approbations from around the country regarding the great work of our long-term observers.
Of the 70 elections that have been monitored by our Center, this was the most transformational, in that: a) it offered an end to a dozen years of military and political conflict; b) it will lead to a total change in the structure of government from a kingdom to a democratic republic; and c) massive numbers of formerly excluded or marginalized groups will be given full legal status and probably enhanced social status. It has been a very satisfactory and gratifying experience.
Rosalynn, Jeff, and I left the plane Sunday morning in Tel Aviv to begin a Carter Center mission through Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.