Nepal's Maoist rebels face critical democratic test


Nepal's Maoists may have succeeded in fighting their way out of the jungles and mountains and into the capital, but on Thursday they are facing what analysts say is their biggest test yet.

The impoverished Himalayan country is voting on its political future, and also delivering a verdict on whether the rebels can be trusted to lead Nepal into a new era of stability after a decade of civil war that they started.

Although the ultra-leftists renounced violence when they signed a peace deal in 2006, the run-up to the polls has seen them accused of bullying voters and threatening to go back to war should they feel cheated once ballots are counted.

Analysts say it all points to an organisation that is at best struggling to adapt to the democratic process, or at worst exploiting it after having failed to score an outright win in a "people's war" that left at least 13,000 dead.

"Guns and muscle power continue to dominate their policies," said Yubaraj Ghimire, the editor of weekly news magazine Newsfront and a sceptic when it comes to assessing the Maoists' democratic credentials.

"They want to be part of mainstream politics, but they want it on their own terms," he said, pointing to frequent points during the peace process when the rebels pushed to the brink of collapse and won even more concessions from mainstream parties.

The rebels have certainly come a long way: in 1996, they launched their campaign to topple the monarchy with a few dozen fighters and home made weapons, and progressively fought the Royal Nepal Army to a stalemate.

In caste-riven and impoverished rural Nepal, the rebels also found fertile ground for their "Prachanda Path" version of communism, named after the rebel leader whose nom-de-guerre means "the fierce one."

A big boost came in bizarre circumstances in 2001, when the then king and almost all the royal family were massacred by a binge drinking, drugged, lovelorn and suicidal prince with a unhealthy passion for guns.

The new king, Gyanendra, and his son Paras -- loathed for his apparent playboy lifestyle -- failed to win the hearts and minds of a public that viewed their survival of the palace massacre as deeply suspicious.

When Gyanendra tried to seize absolute power to fight the Maoists it only hastened his own ongoing demise and paved the way for the peace deal and Thursday's elections.

Nearly all the main parties contesting the polls agree the king and crown prince must be sacked after the elections, so the Maoists have, in effect, nearly achieved what they want to do: rid the country of royals.

Some analysts also contend that the rebels are trying to adapt, and ongoing violent conduct is only to be expected given they spent 10 years fighting a war marked by brutality on both sides.

"If they were not committed to the peace process and election, they would have already gone back to the jungles or split into factions," said Bhasker Gautam, an author and political analyst.

"For a party with such a bloody history, it's quite impressive. They have been tested time and time again, and have solved issues through negotiation."

The editor of the English language Nepali Times, Kunda Dixit, paints a more complex picture -- that of a rebel force still at war with itself, caught in a tug-of-war of uncompromising revolutionary ideology on one side and realpolitik on the other.

"There are two schools of thought about the Maoists. The first is that a Maoist will always be a Maoist, and that they will use parliamentary politics to seize power," Dixit said.

"The other is that they will come around and adjust to multi party democracy. Within the party, both schools of thought still exist."

Thursday's vote will therefore be a test for those hardliners in the Maoists who are wedded to an all-or-nothing lexicon, and especially for the moderates committed to giving peace a chance should the party fare badly.

"At the moment, Prachanda has been able to keep a lid on things," Dixit said. "Whether that will hold if they lose badly will be the
challenge." (AFP)