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Vantage Point: From Nepal to America, voters' thirst for change remains constant

Paul Costello

At a polling place in the city of Padan in Nepal, women lined up in great numbers with men to vote. In some areas, people walked for hours since most cars were cleared from roads on election day.

BY PAUL COSTELLO

Mount Everest is still shaking. More than a week after initial ballot counts signaled a likely political victory by the former Maoist rebels, the world's highest peak is still reverberating from Nepal's democratic step forward.

To say an election has occurred would be an understatement. It's been more like a political earthquake as voters catapulted the former communist armed rebels to the very heights of political power.

On April 10, millions of Nepalese went to the polls. I watched it unfold as a member of an international observer delegation headed by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Nepal is the world's only Hindu kingdom. For 250 years, it's been ruled by a monarchy until recent reforms set up a democratic process for the creation of a republic. The goal of the election was simple—create a new constituent assembly that would rewrite the country's constitution and govern the nation.

If the initial trend holds as the final ballots are counted this week, the election results will be staggering: the monarchy will have been toppled, veteran politicians will be banished and former rebels who waged a 10-year insurgency will become the dominant force in Nepal's political power structure.

To fully understand the magnitude of the jolt and the hope for a new era there, one has to appreciate the terrible toll inflicted during the decade-long insurgency. Thirteen thousand people died, economic instability reigned, tourism collapsed and Nepal's neighbors, India and China, refused to extend an economic hand while the country was steeped in political chaos. Even today, the U.S. State Department classifies the Maoist rebels as a terrorist organization and still refuses to officially recognize them.

For six days, I became immersed in Nepal's political life as I traveled throughout parts of the country's vast Katmandu Valley and watched democracy truly in action.

In the preceding weeks, reports of bombings in remote locations around the country had created a palpable sense of fear. Even though the Maoist leader, Prachanda, whose nom de guerre means "awesome," promised a peaceful election, no one was really sure what would unfold. IEDs, though less powerful than their explosive cousins in Iraq, dotted the landscape. Newspaper headlines described killings around the nation. Katmandu, the capital city, was laced with angst. Would violence delay the elections for a third time? It was a question on the minds of many.

There were 700 international observers in Nepal, most from the United Nations along with 76 from the Carter Center. Teams were dispatched throughout the nation, from urban Katmandu to the furthest jungles reached by chopper and trekking. My observer team—an interpreter, a driver, a sharp young Carter Center staffer who'd been in-country for nearly three years and a colleague from my White House days—was assigned to the Lalitpur region adjacent to Katmandu.

Election day was astonishing. From our visit at dawn to the first polling station in the fabled city of Padan to our 14th at the end of the day, everything was so orderly. It was as if the nation had taken a collective tranquilizer. The mood was mellow. Women showed up in great numbers, in some places outnumbering men. Hundreds arrived at dawn, and long lines of people remained at the polls in the hot afternoon sun. Some had walked for hours because election day was designated a national holiday and only official vehicles could be on the roads A sense of celebration filled the air. It was remarkable.

As the polls closed, it was clear that the fears of massive violence were unwarranted. Millions of Nepalese peacefully cast their votes. According to the nation's election commission, two people were killed and polling was cancelled in just 100 of the 20,899 polling stations.

As I traveled throughout the rural countryside, I kept thinking about our history with democracy and how patience and perseverance were so critical to America's success. Up hills, down hills, with our four-wheel-drive vehicle perilously near the edge of narrow roads, I was struck by the overwhelming desire for change no matter where one resides.

How do you explain the huge Maoist win? Easy. Nepal is no different than any other country electing a leader. Just look at France (Sarkozy), Iran (Ahmadinejad), Italy (Berlusconi) and the U.S. Democratic contest between Clinton and Obama. Human beings thirst for change, whatever that change may bring about in the end.

A young woman selling silk purses in Katmandu's Thamel district succinctly captured the thinking of many Nepalis. She wasn't able to vote because travel to her village was too difficult. If she had been able to get there, I asked, who would she have voted for?

"The Maoists. I'd vote for them," she replied. "If they're part of a government, they won't return to the jungles and wage war. Tourism will return!" She smiled. "I can sell more purses," she added as she tried again to foist one on me. I loved her analysis. Pure and hopeful. Naïve? Only time will tell.

For Jimmy Carter, the election in Nepal validates his work in founding the Carter Center and underscores his belief that peaceful conflict resolution is not a dream. It can be reality.

What will happen in Nepal's future is anyone's guess. For now, it's safe to say, the ballot box has beaten the gun.


Paul Costello is executive director of the medical school's Office of Communication & Public Affairs. He served as press spokesman for former First Lady Rosalynn Carter from 1977-81.