On May 14 Nepal held its first local level elections in twenty years. Its an important step in the right direction for this struggling republic, Nepal has long suffered from political turmoil. A civil war from 1996 to 2006, the royal massacre in 2001, and a significant politically driven economic crisis in 2015 are just a few of the recent examples.
It’s really hard as a foreigner to fully understand the politics, but I’ll try to take a stab at the processes involved in voting and the overall mood of the country. We were lucky enough to witness some of the process, and quite a few people were willing to talk to us about the elections. This is largely a collection of the things we learned from talking to Nepalese we met in the streets of Kathmandu and in the mountain villages.
In order to be eligible to vote people need voter ID cards, which have their pictures and information about where they live. These cards are available in district offices, which are often located many hours (or even days) from where people live. Many of these villages are high in the mountains – far from any roads – which means a long walk to the district office.
To complicate matters further, the ID cards are only issued from the district in which you were born. If you work or live in a different area you have to return home to register. For many getting to their home village is a 1-3 day process. For those living further afield, a bus ride from one end of the country to the other takes 5 days.
Finally, to get a voter ID card one needs to bring a birth certificate. If you don’t have one, and many people didn’t, that added a whole additional bureaucratic process.
Voters can register at age 16, and are eligible to vote at 18. That’s a good thing, as it might take two years to go through all of the steps.
An independent election commission is in charge of administering the process. They had to figure out a fair system in a country with a low literacy rate and 123 different languages. They needed a way to keep people from cheating, a way to make people feel that their vote counts. And they need to educate the population on how the process works, and the rights and responsibilities of the voters.
This was not an easy task. The systems they came up with is complicated and clunky – it’s a huge pain to vote here. But it does seem pretty fair and difficult to cheat, important considering the history of corruption here.
Build up to the election
In the month before the election trucks and cars mounted with loudspeakers roamed around promoting the politicians and the parties. Supporters marched with flags and banners, hundreds of teenagers with matching t-shirts rode around on trucks shouting slogans.
It’s a pretty charged time – arguments over different party’s ideologies and promises are common. Though I couldn’t understand the words, I knew what people were saying. Political arguments sound exactly the same in every language – fast talking, loud voices, repetition. These arguments sometimes escalate to the point of violence.
Military and police presence
To keep the peace the government deployed 200,000 military and police. They even went so far as to hire an extra 70,000 police temporarily for the time of the elections. It’s all about trying to keep the process secure and fair.
Schools and businesses closed
The election commission decided to close schools for the week of the elections. Many businesses also shut down as people must return to their home villages to vote. Kathmandu changed from a bustling metropolis to a ghost town as thousands left. Every bus leaving the city filled up.
Getting back home is a process
Since Nepalis can only vote where they are registered, and they can only register where they were born, voting means going home. We followed a few people we met who work in Kathmandu to their small home village of Tipling, which is northwest of the city in the Himalaya mountains.
The first day we took a 3.5 hour bus out of the city to the small town of Dhading Besi. We arrive late in the in the day so we find a room for the night and eat some noodles at a restaurant.
The second day we pay for a ride on a delivery truck over a bumpy dirt road. All of the jeeps that usually transport people on this road are full, so our only other option is to walk for two days, which didn’t sound fun in the hot, sweaty and muddy jungle.
I count 52 Nepalese in the truck. That’s a full deck of cards. I’m one of the jokers who ride on top, for a total of 55 people in one vehicle.
Riding along at one point everyone starts frantically jumping out of the back as the truck nearly tips over. Everyone gets out and walks while the driver negotiates a particularly sketchy section. That sorted, everyone jams back in and on and we bump along, this time I chose to get in the back. Inside the rock pile you have no personal space – everyone holds on to everyone else for support.
I can now say I’ve made it to second base with many Nepalese. Thank you all for that.
On top isn’t any better. My seat consists of a 1-inch thick metal bar. By hooking the front of my foot under a rail and pushing in the opposite direction with my other foot I am able to brace myself and avoid falling off as the trucks slips and rocks along the rough, steep road. In this position I have one hand free to untangle low hanging power lines that catch on the truck and me and the other jokers.
Somehow a few people manage to fall asleep for some of the ride. Others talk and joke somehow managing to make a long and uncomfortable trip a little less unpleasant. Bruised, sunburned and tired we arrive six hours later at Dharka, a small village at the end of the dirt road.
All of the guesthouses are full, so we walk an hour up the valley and find a random house that is willing to let us and a few others sleep for the night. One centimeter thick foam never looked so inviting.
The third day starts at 4:30 AM with one of the other guests yelling to wake everyone up. We’re not really asleep anyway, so, whatever. Our hosts serve us really sweet water that vaguely resembles the idea of tea, and then we set out walking in the cool of the morning. After stopping for a few more sweet tea like drinks and lunch we arrive in Borang, a pleasant farm village, and decide to stop for the night.
We start the fourth day with more tea like hummingbird food sugar water drink stuff. It finally occurs to us that this is coffee – a tiny pinch of instant coffee mixed with a pile of sugar. There is so little coffee that the drink is almost clear. Were it not for the sugar it would just be warm dirty water.
Five hours of walking later and we finally reach our destination of Tipling. It took four hard days of travel for these people to vote, and Tipling is not even a particularity remote village. Some people went much further.
But I’m getting way off subject
My point is that people exert great effort to vote here. They take this seriously. This is their first chance at having local representation in twenty years.
Elections run from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Lines start early, everyone is excited to vote, the poling areas are crowded. Police and soldiers with machine guns and teargas launchers direct the flow of people. Men are in one line, women another, elderly and disabled in a third.
It’s slow going, people stand under the hot sun for hours. Younger people carry old men and women up and down the hundreds of stone steps to the poling place.
Nearby, makeshift restaurants serve plates of fried noodles and cups of tea. Except for the strong military presence it feels like a festival. Even though not everyone’s favored candidates will win, it’s still a happy time.
It takes a few days to count and report the results. The victors throw all day parties with plenty of local rakshi consumed. We heard about a few small skirmishes and three deaths, but in most places the election proceeded smoothly and peacefully.
This whole charade is just to elect local representation – village heads and helpers, district reps. It’s roughly equivalent to electing mayors and city council in the US.
An estimated 71% of eligible voters participated (in comparison, 58% bothered in the 2016 US national elections)
But wait, that’s only some of it
The elections May 14th were only for part of the country. Another part is scheduled to vote June 28th and the final portion September 18th. The election is held in phases in an attempt to control security and ensure people’s right to vote. Some of the regions scheduled to vote next are likely going to be more problematic given the history of discord. Many of the people who live in those regions were largely unrepresented in the old system, and are likely not going to have it much better under the new leadership, at least not anytime soon.
Also, this is only a local level election
If these local level elections go well there should be another two rounds of elections – province level and national level. No doubt these will be just as complicated, if they happen.
It would be like having three separate elections in the US spread out over a few years, one for your local government, one for your state government and one for the national level. What a pain in the ass.
Be glad you can vote with a stamp
No doubt getting an up close view at this 2017 Nepali election has me reflecting on our own political participation back home. Voting in the US is as easy as registering online and then strolling down to the neighborhood polling station. In many states you don’t even have to leave your house – just post the ballot in the mail! Despite these measures of convenience voter turnout is pathetically low. I’m not saying the US system is perfect, and I understand the logical arguments behind not voting in a system where your vote probably doesn’t matter. I just find it refreshing that Nepal has a higher voter turnout even though voting is such a hard thing to do here.