- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

KATMANDU, Nepal — A Maoist political party appeared headed for control of Nepal yesterday in a historic first that threatens to embolden another Maoist movement in neighboring India.

Never before have Maoists taken power in a democratic election.

But in Nepal, Maoists yesterday extended their lead as vote-counting continued following nationwide elections Thursday, officials said, and appear poised to control a national assembly that will rewrite the constitution and abolish the 240-year-old monarchy.

Of 601 seats up for grabs in the new Constituent Assembly, 212 have been decided.

The Maoists have won 101 seats and are ahead in 11 other contests as of the latest tally, the election commission said.

The exotic Himalayan kingdom is best known in the U.S. as a destination for backpacking tourists and mountain climbers headed for Mt. Everest.

But for nearly a decade, Nepal was gripped by a Maoist insurgency, in which an estimated 13,000 people died.

In nearby India, the world’s largest democracy and one with growing ties to the U.S., another Maoist movement — known as the Naxalites — is increasing in strength and embraces an area containing roughly a quarter of India”s population.

In eastern India, Maoist rebels fatally shot five policemen and a luggage porter and seriously wounded two others in an attack on a railroad station, police said yesterday.

Members of the Nepalese and Indian Maoist movements formed a strategic alliance during a 2001 meeting in Calcutta. At the time, India’s Home Affairs Ministry confirmed reports of Naxalites offering training and medical care to Nepalese Maoists.

While the violence continues in India, however, their Nepalese brethren have taken a different path, by signing a peace pact with other political parties in 2006.

Massive pro-democracy protests that year forced Nepal’s King Gyanendra to reinstate parliament, which then quickly moved to diminish his powers.

As of yesterday, the centrist Nepali Congress, the country”s largest party, had won just 30 seats and was leading in races for 11 others, the election commission said.

The center-left Communist Party of Nepal (UML) had won 24 seats and was leading in the count for nine others.

Both had been forecast to fare better than the Maoists.

A complicated electoral process that awards half of the assembly’s 601 seats based on parties’ percentages of the total vote makes it too early to declare the Maoists winners.

But regardless of the outcome, they will have a major role in writing a new constitution, designing a new government and following through on parliament’s vote to abolish the monarchy.

In Washington, the State Department said yesterday it was too early to comment because final results won’t be known for days.

Although the U.S. considers the Nepalese Maoists a terrorist group, State Department officials have said in the past that the Maoists would lose the terrorist designation if they follow through on pledges to renounce violence and become peaceful democrats.

Nearly 60 percent of voters turned out for Thursday’s election as concern swirled over what the Maoists might do if the election results did not turn out in their favor.

Maoist party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, urged the world to show trust and met with Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala over the weekend to pledge a “positive collaboration” in the future.

“We have come from a different background, and this is a mandate the people have given to us to lead the country to peace,” Prachanda said after winning an assembly seat. “We’ll honor this.”

At the top of the Maoist agenda will be the ouster of Gyanendra, who took the throne in 2001 after the popular King Birendra and much of the royal family were massacred by the crown prince.

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