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Strong election showing means Nepals former Maoist rebels to play major role in government
An AP News Analysis
APTOPIX Nepal Electio Heal
Hishila Yami of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) waves to public as she along with her supporters takes out a victory rally after winning her seat in recent held assembly elections in Katmandu, Nepal, Monday, April 14, 2008. Former rebel communist party is leading in most of the constituencies, where vote counting has began for the Thursday election that will rewrite its constitution, the latest effort to transform a troubled, near-medieval land into a modern democracy. Red color on the faces and hands is the scented powder which also signifies the color of the party flag. - photo by Associated Press
    NEW DELHI — Two years after coming out of the bush, Nepal’s Maoists are marching across the Himalayan kingdom — just not in the way many thought they would.
    After a decade-long fight against the government that claimed 13,000 lives, the former insurgents are defying expectations by leading in the early tallies from Thursday’s election for a constitutional assembly that will shape a new Nepal.
    Maoist candidates took 108 of the 196 districts where counting had been completed Monday, putting the movement far ahead of the traditional political parties — the centrist Nepali Congress with 31 seats and the rival Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Lenninst) with 27.
    It was too early to declare the Maoists the winner, however. More than half the Constituent Assembly’s 601 seats will be allocated according to the parties’ percentage of the total vote and a clear picture of the body’s makeup is not expected until later this week or even next week.
    Still, the Maoists are assured of a major role in the new assembly, which will rewrite the constitution and most likely end a royal dynasty that has reigned for 239 years.
    The election was intended to cement a 2006 peace deal with the Maoists, who gave up their fight for a communist state after widespread unrest forced King Gyanendra to cede total power, which he had seized the year before.
    The Maoists’ strong showing at the ballot box removes what many feared was the biggest threat in the wake of the elections — disaffected former rebels renewing their armed struggle.
    But it raises a host of other questions: Are the Maoists the committed, if left-leaning, capitalists they now claim to be? Can leaders accustomed to giving battlefield orders handle the give and take of a democracy?
    And what of the new government’s relations with India, the regional heavyweight? And the United States, which still considers the former rebel movement a terrorist organization?
    Despite the weakening of Marx-quoting communists elsewhere, it’s easy to see the Maoists’ appeal in Nepal, where per capita income is about $25 a month and many people toil as farmers for feudal landlords.
    The Maoists say bringing prosperity to the masses is their top priority, but through capitalism — at least for now — not the communal peasant uprising preached by the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
    ‘‘Our main concern will be to create an atmosphere to have a capitalistic mode of production,’’ Maoist leader Prachanda told The Associated Press weeks before the vote.
    Communism remains the ultimate goal, but ‘‘that will be in the future,’’ said the 54-year-old, whose real name is Pushpa Kamal Dahal. His nom de guerre means ‘‘the fierce one’’ in Nepali.
    Most observers expected the Maoists to place third behind the two established political parties. But the Maoists’ tightly run organization helped get out the vote and their softened rhetoric appealed to Nepalis with a dim view of the often squabbling and corrupt political elite.
    ‘‘The other politicians never tried to help the people. They always promised but never did anything,’’ businessman Ram Gopal Sharma said.
    The 43-year-old electronics importer, with his knockoff Tag Heuer watch, is hardly a typical Maoist supporter but said he voted for the former rebels because Nepal needs change.
    ‘‘We have tried the other politicians, we have tried the king — we saw what he did,’’ Sharma said, referring to the monarch’s bloody yearlong rule. ‘‘The Maoists say they will respect business. I hope they are truthful.’’
    Another factor in the Maoists showing may have been fear — they were accused of trying to intimidate voters and rivals — although international observers said the election was largely fair.
    The Maoists’ fight for a communist state cost about 13,000 lives, and their murderous suppression of dissent in the areas they controlled earned them a spot on Washington’s terror list.
    For a time, the rebels controlled a third of the country — and many said their real power was rooted in fear. Vocal critics were butchered by the insurgents, who often stole what they needed from poor villagers and pressed young men and women into service.
    At one point in 2004, the Maoists imposed a weeklong blockade on Katmandu, the capital, cutting it off from the rest of Nepal. The economy suffered during the insurgency, and so did tourism.
    U.S. officials aren’t saying if the movement will be removed from the terror list. The Maoists have not entirely given up violence — a U.N. mission overseeing the election says the former rebels were behind many of the campaign’s assaults and shootings.
    But it seems unlikely Washington would refuse to deal with Nepal’s first democratically elected government in nine years. The United States worked with an interim administration that included the Maoists.
    India is in a more difficult position. The Maoists call for renegotiating Nepal’s treaties, especially a 1950 pact giving India a dominant role in Nepali affairs. That could create an opening for rival China — although Beijing regards the Maoists as irritants at best.
    ‘‘This is not the result we wanted,’’ said an Indian foreign ministry official in New Delhi.
    But the diplomat, who agreed to discuss the situation only if not quoted by name because he needs to work with Nepal’s new government, said India saw a silver lining. ‘‘Stability is our paramount goal. If the Maoists bring stability, then we can work with them.’’
    There is one party for whom the Maoists’ success is only bad news — King Gyanendra.
    Nepal’s monarch and his supporters had hoped a strong showing by royalist candidates or feuding among the major parties would give the king a political reprieve.
    Now, even monarchists seem resigned to losing the king.
    ‘‘The people turned against His Majesty,’’ said Krishna Bushan, a 36-year-old civil servant who has a portrait of Gyanendra and Queen Kamal hanging above his sofa.
    Soon ‘‘it will be only decoration,’’ he predicted. ‘‘There will be no meaning in it.’’