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After a Historic General Election, Nepal Has Chosen a Communist Coalition

Last month, the former Hindu monarchy overwhelmingly voted for a communist prime minister who promises economic growth and political stability. How did they get to this point?
A Nepali woman shows her inked thumb after casting her ballot during the third phase of the Nepalese local elections at a polling station at Birgunj Parsa district, some 150 kilometers south of Kathmandu, on September 18th, 2017.

A Nepali woman shows her inked thumb after casting her ballot during the third phase of the Nepalese local elections at a polling station at Birgunj Parsa district, some 150 kilometers south of Kathmandu, on September 18th, 2017.

For the last two decades, the Himalayan nation of Nepal has been dogged by brutal civil conflict, political instability, failing coalitions, and natural disaster. The country, formerly the world's only Hindu nation, has been on a slow and turbulent march toward a complete political overhaul, following nearly 240 years of monarchic rule. Over the last two months of 2017, millions of Nepali citizens voted in a historic two-phase legislative election—the first since the abolition of its monarchy—for representation in the country's national and provincial parliaments, with an earlier, local phase of elections that took place last spring. The result has made history for one of the world's youngest republics.

The Left Alliance—an unexpected coalition of the country's Maoist and Marxist-Leninist parties—acquired a sweeping majority, winning nearly 70 percent of the total parliamentary seats and replacing the ruling, center-left Nepali Congress.

Nepal, the only South Asian country to have never been formally colonized, is situated between India and China, two massive competing economies, each with a unique historical relationship with the Himalayan region. The recent election of Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli—the head of the Left Alliance's Marxist-Leninist faction and critic of India's influence over Nepal—has set a historical precedent in a country that has, for better or worse, been interlinked with New Delhi's politics for decades. To understand where Nepal's Left Alliance could potentially lead its new federalized republic, it's worth looking at the complex set of factors that preceded this republic in the first place.

The Maoist Insurgency and a Failure to Finalize a Constitution

In 1996, Nepal's Maoists, who identify themselves as the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, launched a violent, decade-long civil war, in which 17,000 people lost their lives. Broadly speaking, they demanded a wholesale political overhaul, including the abolition of monarchy and the implementation of democratic secularism nationwide. After 10 years, they reached a peace agreement with the government of Nepal, which ended much of the violence and led to the promulgation of a new interim constitution.

Consistent with the Maoists' demands, the new constitution outlined fundamental rights and parliamentary representation for indigenous groups, Dalits, and, most notably, women (at 33 percent). It also led to the country's first Constituent Assembly election, which was held in 2008, with the goal of writing a more definitive constitution. The Maoists won a majority and effectively stripped the Hindu monarchy of its power.

What followed was another decade of political see-sawing and unpredictability, with prime ministership shifting nine times in eight years due to a jostling for power between the Maoists, Marxist-Leninists, and the Nepali Congress. The Maoist-led Constituent Assembly failed to implement a decisive constitution within its mandate, and eventually lost its majority to the Nepali Congress in the country's second Constituent Assembly elections in 2013. Once again, the internal tussle for democratic power left little time for that democracy to actually be exercised in service of the Nepali people.

A Devastating Earthquake

Nepal, which also sits on the boundary of two massive tectonic plates, experienced a severe 7.8 magnitude earthquake in April of 2015, killing nearly 9,000 people, injuring thousands more, and triggering powerful avalanches in the Mount Everest region. The disaster finally galvanized the country's political stakeholders to break their deadlock, and, later that year, agree on a new and definitive constitution, which divided the country into seven newly outlined provinces.

Nepali victims of the earthquake search for their belongings among debris of their homes on April 29th, 2015, in Bhaktapur, Nepal.

Nepali victims of the earthquake search for their belongings among debris of their homes on April 29th, 2015, in Bhaktapur, Nepal.

Although many saw this as a definitive step forward in the country's transition to a republic, the 2015 constitution had its critics. Multiple marginalized groups, such as the Madhesi—a mostly Indian origin community living in southern Nepal—were worried that the new constitution would continue to ignore them and restrict Madhesi access to political power, as it was being rushed by establishment parties comprised primarily of high-class Hindu and the country's "Hill Elite." Many were also dissatisfied with how the new constitution outlined that a smaller percentage of parliament would now be elected by proportional representation (45 percent, down from 58 percent in the previous document), which has historically helped these disenfranchised groups become elected representatives.

A Suffocating Blockade and Growing Anti-India Sentiments

After the 2015 earthquake and the promulgation of the new constitution, Nepal's often-overbearing neighbor to the south, India, tacitly allowed for a suffocating five-month blockade on the country—a manifestation of India's alleged dissatisfaction with how Nepal's new constitution treated its Madhesi community.

The event unified much of the Nepali population against Indian influence. K.P. Oli denounced it vehemently, calling the move "more inhuman than war." Oli's comments established him as a nationalist leader who would fight for Nepal's political and economic integrity against Indian influence, a position that situated him as a formidable opponent to the then-sitting Nepali Congress prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who had historically been softer on Indian interventionism in the region.

By this point Oli had become a clear favorite, as people grew skeptical of Deuba and the Nepali Congress' quiet appeasement of New Delhi in the lead up to these elections. The Nepali Congress ran a rather weak campaign, focused on instilling fear among citizens of an impending totalitarian state at the hands of the Left Alliance. Their words failed to move a disinterested public, which had seen the Alliance become increasingly democratic, barring its extremist factions. The stage had been set for a Left Alliance victory.

Looking Ahead

With a reinvigorated sense of state sovereignty and nationalism—born out of crisis, political frustration, and impoverishment—Nepali citizens, as well as India and China, will be watching closely to see if Oli's election will jolt the country out of its painful period of economic and political instability.

Many Nepalis have been suffering and it's clear that what they want more than anything else is this stability and an increased investment in economic development. Despite the country's rugged terrain and lack of well-connected roads—which made it harder for many to easily reach polling stations—Nepalis demonstrated their hope by showing up, overwhelmingly, with a voter turnout of 67 percent. "Democracy is happiness," one voter told the Washington Post, "and happiness is roads."

Toward the end of December, Oli made a surprise visit to Nepal's border with China to inspect the route for an upcoming railway project between the two countries. The moving and shifting, it seems, may have already begun.