If you close your eyes to the shock of the 24-hour news cycle, it turns out that life in America is pretty good. The grocery store shelves are filled with whatever food we desire. Stable roads allow our comfortable cars to get us from one place to another with few hazards. And while poverty exists, most of our poor are wealthy when compared to those found in many third-world nations.
With the safety and comfort we enjoy, it’s easy to take national stability for granted. Consider the experience of Nepal, as documented in the book Nepal: Votes for Peace, written by the former Chief Election Commissioner of Nepal Bhojraj Pokharel, and peace researcher Shrishti Rana. The book discusses the election of the Nepalese national Constituent Assembly that took place in April 2008, during Pokharel’s tenure.
Nepal in the early twenty-first century was a mess, what the authors sterilely identify as “post-conflict.” The restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990 gave way to the People’s War, pitting Maoist factions against the state army, with ordinary citizens caught in the crossfire. In June 2001, nine members of the royal family, including the king and queen, were assassinated, possibly by the crown prince, who committed suicide three days later. The new king (and brother of the late king) remained in power only five years before being forced to be resign in the face of further threats of civil war.
America was born in conflict, but the aggressor was an ocean away, and the people were generally unified in their cause. This book considers how to return a nation to stability in the midst of conflict between armed factions, masses of poor and disenfranchised minorities bitter at their treatment by the dominant society, interference by powerful neighboring countries, and no constitution or body of law to guide the process.
After providing a bit of historical background, most of the book deals with the minutiae of preparing for a nationwide election, including how to cope with nearly a year’s delay thanks to political infighting. There’s enough demographic analyses, quota lists, and overlapping timelines to keep a professional statistician happy for weeks. But the authors also discuss the inherent drama, such as how officials dealt with candidates killing each other.
The election eventually happened, with the Maoists, who had threatened to resume the war if they lost, taking first place. Perhaps that’s no surprise, but what was significant was that the aggressors put their guns away and made an attempt at parliamentary legislation. Unfortunately, by the book’s epilogue, the parties were unable to pass a new constitution, and the elected congress came to an end. In the years since publication, Nepal was able to transition into a constitutional democracy, and has had two relatively peaceful years under their new constitution.
In reading a book like this, you quickly realize that the left-right divide we experience in America is extremely tame. Where we sling mud, others sling live grenades. A hate crime in the United States often maxes out at fisticuffs and name-calling. In other countries, killing everyone in a neighborhood doesn’t even rise to the level of police reporting, assuming that the police weren’t in on the murders.
The book expresses some satisfaction that the election occurred at all, but one interesting discussion at the end deals with the failure of Nepal’s constitution. Although America crafted its own extremely terse constitution in under a year, it has led to one of the most stable countries on earth. It took seven years for Nepal to finally ratify its constitution, and the resulting document was over 200 pages long. The authors point to the difficulty of trying to “reconcile two distinct political philosophies—radical communist thoughts and liberal democratic values.” Despite the tremendous detail and care, the fear that the country will resume its internal conflicts is always real.
Nepal: Votes for Peace is not designed as a quaint afternoon read. The authors wrote the book primarily to assist other post-conflict countries with their own election preparations. But for comfortable Americans who fret and worry about the most minor of electoral infractions or political disagreements, reading a book like this can bring tremendous insight, and remind us, as Thomas Jefferson said, that “We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed.”