Nepal’s general election on Nov. 19 was supposed to usher in a new era of stability, but uncertainty reigns as strong as ever after the leader of the Himalayan nation’s largest Maoist party said he would withdraw from the national assembly and blamed his thrashing at the ballot box on widespread vote fraud.
“We urge the election commission to stop the counting,” Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, told assembled media, complaining of “conspiracy and poll-rigging.” Party supporters were similarly bellicose, chanting “We are ready to fight again!” outside their headquarters.
For centuries, mountainous Nepal was the realm of kings, but a Maoist insurgency that began in the mid-1990s set into motion a series of events that led to the monarchy’s abolition in 2008. The country boasts 125 ethnic groups and 127 spoken languages, along with a riotous caldron of bickering communities and castes. More than 120 political parties registered to compete in the 2013 election — due to myriad national dialects the ballot paper looked like a picture-bingo form of myriad party emblems — although a dozen boycotted the vote, including an important Maoist splinter faction that called a 10-day general strike last Sunday.
On Friday, initial results indicated that the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) — which, despite its name, is a center-left party that has little to do with Prachanda or the Maoists — was leading the Nepali Congress party by 41 seats to 32, but vote counting will likely continue into the weekend. A total of 601 assembly members will be voted with 240 directly-elected, 335 awarded by a proportional representation and a further 26 picked by a council of ministers.
While the 58-year-old Prachanda’s claims of irregularities appear very much like sour grapes — both former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, here as an observer, and his E.U. counterparts have praised the voting process — the consequences of the Maoist defeat may be dire. Although a decade-long civil war between rebels and government officially ended in 2006, at a cost of some 13,000 lives, there has been little reconciliation since the rebels swapped their jungle lairs for officialdom, and the lack of a workable constitution has largely brought political paralysis. (This month’s poll to fill the Constituent Assembly has the larger goal of finally finishing the constitution, and there is very little agreement about what type of government to install.) While a return to open warfare is unlikely, such a possibility has not strayed far from the national psyche.
With just one million of Nepal’s 27 million population living in Kathmandu, the capital and biggest city, this has been an election campaign fought in rural towns and villages. Party logos could be spotted sprayed on the crumbling roads through scattered hamlets, as groups of excited young men clutch party flags. (Despite the slaying of one candidate and a series of minor explosions orchestrated by a hardline Maoist splinter group, most people TIME spoke to have been pleasantly surprised by a lack of violence.)
Life in Nepal’s rural, rugged heartland is the very definition of bucolic. In the emerald foothills of Langtang mountain, nothing much grows above 15,000 ft except potatoes, and this frugal diet is generally supplemented with yak’s cheese. But election fever has nevertheless been intense, and trains of sandaled voters snaked along mountain passes to rustic polling booths. Local party members riding motorcycles then accompanied the filled ballot boxes to the counting centers, ostensibly to guard against the kind of fraud alleged by Prachanda. (Turnout apparently breached 70% despite intimidation by the Maoist boycotters.)
Reforming the national economy remains a major hurdle. Boasting eight out of 10 highest mountains in the world, with peerless scenery to match, Nepal has untold tourism potential, but only received around 600,000 visitors last year, and the calling of a ten-day transport strike immediately prior to the polls by the election-boycotting Maoist splinter faction disrupted thousands of foreign arrivals taking advantage of the blue skies of prime trekking season. “We were not really sure of the situation and were close to being stranded up in the mountains,” says Peter Reid, a 32-year-old British teacher on his first visit to the country.
And so agriculture remains Nepal’s principal economic activity, employing 80% of the population and providing a third of GDP. The landlocked nation depends on foreign aid for nearly two-thirds of development funds, and is largely kept in the black by the around $5 billion sent home annually by the millions of Nepalis working abroad in the Gulf states and Southeast Asia as factory workers, laborers and security guards.
(COVER STORY: Nepal’s rebels with a cause.)
Nevertheless, the country has huge hydropower potential that has garnered envious glances from energy-hungry neighbors China and India. Many see the benefit of harnessing such resources. “We need the government to work for all the people of Nepal rather than just one section,” Pappu Tamang, a trainee electrician in Syabru Bensi hoping to find work at one of several new dam projects in the country’s north, tells TIME.
Rampant instability and corruption is no boon to foreign investment, however, and bank robbery, kidnapping and extortion are relatively commonplace. Prachanda may have won the 2008 election with promises to empower the rural poor, but five years featuring five different governments and severe criticism of the former guerrillas’ lavish lifestyle have soured the public mood. Nevertheless, whoever finally wins the poll, keeping the defeated Maoists within the political process will be a challenge as imposing as the surrounding Himalayas.