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Observing historical elections in remote Maghar villages, Nepal

by Gaëlle Sévenier - Free Lance Reporter
April 20th 2008

On April 10th, Nepal held its first democratic elections, selecting the Constituent Assembly charged with writing the new Nepali Constitution. Chin Thapa, a 25 years old Nepali porter born in the remote Maghar village of Kubinde, voted for the first time of his life. We witnessed this historical election which put an end to 240 years of monarchy and to decades of what many Nepalis call « civil war », with more than 11,000 people killed since 1996.

Weeks prior to the elections, the country was expecting many acts of violence. Borders were closed. All media, UN organizations and political leaders were calling for peace. No one knew what would be the output of these first democratic elections. More than 18 million Nepalis were called to vote for the 601 members of the Constituent Assembly. According to the Election Commission, over 60% of the total 17.6 million eligible voters exercised their rights at 239 of the 240 electoral constituencies.

Despite the fact that the government had declared national holidays to allow all Nepali citizens to vote, Chin Thapa, who belongs to the Maghar ethnic group in Nepal, did not know until the last week if he could have the possibility to go back to his home district and exercise his rights to vote.

Chin Thapa, with friends and Reporter

Chin and I have known each other for more than a year, as he guided many of the incredible treks I have done throughout the country. I remember him telling how important it was for him to vote on April 10th. « I really hope my boss will allow me to have some days off so that I can go vote for the first time» he said.

A few days before the elections, I came visit Chin in his office. The porter was upset. He did not receive the authorization to go to his remote village to vote as he was scheduled to accompany tourists on another trek. I decided to go directly to Chin’s boss and offer him a deal : a friend of mine and myself would contract Chin to be our guide on a new trek ; but a special trek, one going at his remote village in the Dhading district, where Chin could finally vote freely.

The Director of the trekking company had no other option but to accept the financial gain in allowing Chin to go. « All right » did he tell Chin in Nepali, « but if I let you vote, you have to vote for the Nepali Congress, not for the Maoists. They are murderers ! ». In the whole country cases like this happened every where. Many people from the ruling elite did try to block workers from voting, especially those like Chin who have a political ideology more incline to the very left.

Chin’s village, Kubinde, is located near Bathathum, half way between the capital and the Annapurnas. Two days of long walk and bus rides are necessary to access his village. On our way, while stopping for the usual Dal Bhat lunch in a tea house next to a bridge, around 20 men wearing Maoists T-shirts start gathering around the table next to us. Everyone talks load,and we can all feel the tension growing.

Chin tells us that it is getting « too warm with politics » and that it is time to pick up our bags and go. Once on top of the hill, Chin translates the conversion he had heard in the tea house. Apparently, 7 Maoists had been killed in Kathmandu the previous day. The group of Maoists we just met were waiting for 3 buses full of Nepali Congress militants about to cross the bridge. The idea was to fight them in retaliation to the violence occurred in Kathmandu.

We finally arrive to Chin’s village. No road, no electricity, no tourist ever coming to this remote area. Every villager welcomes us like members of their family. Every man also asks Chin for election related news. In all mud houses we pass by, politics is the main subject of conversation.

Chin Thapa voting for the first time, Mathillo Pokhara, Nepal

Maghar woman voting in her traditional cloth

On Thursday April 10th, Chin wakes us up very early to go to the election polling stations, a few hours walk from his family’s farm. All the houses we pass by are empty. On the way, we meet men and women dressed up with their most precious traditional cloths. When we arrive in the Mahandrodiya secondary school, in the village of Mathillo Pokhara, hundreds of Nepalis are already waiting on line to vote for the first time of their life. My Swiss friend and I will be the only international observers in this remote area.

We can see two lines of voters, one for men and one for women. Everyone, dressed in their colorful wedding costumes, remains calm and patient. When Chin arrives in front of the pooling booth, he first has to sign and give his digital prints. A long lasting black mark is painted on his left thumb to prevent him from voting in another station. As every Nepali voter, he will fill out two voting bulletins: one for a political party, and one for a member of the Constitutional Congress. Since most of the villagers are illiterates, they are to select the party and members by choosing from different drawings of the political parties’ symbols.

Children and mentally retarded people voting.

Every one remains extremely calm in the village. None of the expected violence occurs. However, we can see cases of grand mothers and mentally retarded people entering the booth accompanied by someone else who will in fact vote for them. Moreover, quite a big amount of young people, obviously under the age of 18, will also be allowed to vote in spite of the law.

« How old are you ? » I ask Rabindar, one of the voters. « I am 16 » the young boy replies. « 16 ? but isn’t it 18 the legal age to vote ? » « Yes, but here you can do anything ! »

After observing the elections in Mathilo Pokhara, we decide to walk to another poling station further down the hills. In the village of Lower Mula Bari, in the district of Dhading, elections are also held in a secondary school. A few armed men in military costumes are posted around the crowd.

« Are the elections going well in this village ? » we ask. « Yes, no violence at all » replies a guard. « This is because of my command ! ». Ten minutes later, while a teacher is inviting us for tea, we hear people screaming. In a few seconds, hundreds of people run toward the center of the park. Chin looks at me and shouts : « Gaëlle, violence ! go take pictures ! ».

We see a huge movement in the crowd, with young people running around their sticks in the air, women yelling and crying, children pushing each other to have a better view of what is going on. It feels like everyone was expecting the violence, and even waiting for it.

Young militants of the UML, the Unity of Marx and Lenin party, started a fight with members of the Nepali Congress. The military forces along with the teachers finally manage to calm down the young people. The Director of the school will then come to me and say « did you see that ? I managed to handle the crisis in just a few minutes. Now every thing is in order ». No other incidents are to be reported from that day in those two poling stations of the District of Dhading.

Mouvement of violence in Lower Mula Bari


Militants of the UML,
the Unity of Marx and Lenin party, fighting with members of the Nepali Congress

The first democratic elections ever held in Nepal were nationally observed as calm and peaceful in most areas. On the day of the elections however, two persons, including an independent candidate, were killed in Nepal and polling was cancelled in 33 of the 20,889 polling stations of the country. “These numbers are far below than what was anticipated widely,” Chief Election Commissioner Bhoj Raj Pokhrel said in a press conference organised by the Election Commission shortly after the election ended.

Election officials said they expect by the end of next week to have the complete poll results for the assembly slated to abolish the monarchy and rewrite the constitution. According to election commission spokesman Laxman Bhattarai the maoists are on track to win around a third of the 335 seats allocated by proportional representation.

The Maoists' leader Prachanda called the results a "victory" and declared to the press : "We are fully committed to the peace process and multi-party democracy and to rebuild this country". A real change in Nepal, with among other issues more access to education, equality, electricity or roads, is certainly the expectation from most of the poor villagers we have encountered in the Maghar region. Now that the Maoists are not opposing the Government nor acting as revolutionaries anymore, Nepal shall see if the promised change may not only remain an illusion.

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