KATHMANDU - As Nepalis head to the polls on Tuesday to elect members of a new Constituent Assembly, many are left to wonder whether the vote will end years of political paralysis that has hurt the Himalayan country’s already lagging economy. And there is concern that the election may be Nepal’s last chance at stability.
Monday is no different from many others in Nepal, as political parties opposed to the election have called yet another general strike.
Still, Vikal Shrestha chose to open his cyber café in the heart of the capital, saying he cannot afford to keep his doors closed just because Nepal’s leaders are unable to reach a consensus.
“Due to political problems, people are doing a lot of strikes and bandhs [shutdowns], so normal people are not happy with that," Shrestha said. "It must be stopped.”
Steps away from Shreshta’s café, some of the more than 12 million eligible voters are picking up their election ID cards as they prepare to cast their ballots for 240 contested seats in the 601-member Constituent Assembly. They have been through this process before in 2008, when the parliamentary body was first formed.
Nepal has seen tremendous change in the last decade: the end of a civil war, the abolishment of the monarchy, and former Maoist rebels joining the government. But despite several attempts, this now democratic republic has yet to draft a constitution and move forward.
Gagan Thapa is a former lawmaker with the Nepal Congress, one of four main parties that were unable to agree on a draft constitution and a structure of government, leading to dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in 2012 and the establishment of an interim government.
“I believe this is the last opportunity for the political parties that were part of the peace process," Thapa said. "This time, if we are able to make a constitution within the timeframe of one year then that will be a foundation for us to move ahead, but if we fail, then the whole course [of the peace process] will collapse.”
Many Nepalis are disillusioned after having high expectations for change when the former rebel Maoists won the most seats in the Constituent Assembly five years ago, said former Maoist leader and analyst Mumaram Khana.
Instead of progress, many have seen increased corruption in a country that ranks 157 out of 186 in the United Nations Human Development Index.
"It is not that Nepalis expected much, but they thought that a new constitution will bring stability and lead the country to economic development," Khanal said.
Still, some Nepalis, like shopkeeper Saroj Khanal, are not giving up hope. He said like any new democracy, it will take some time for the former Himalayan kingdom to chart its political future.
"Definitely change will happen because Maoists have joined the democratic process, formed a government and taken some good steps," he said.
Sandwiched between Asian economic giants India and China, many here say Nepal has already lost too much to the political turmoil and can only benefit if and when stability is once again established.