Travel

Nepalese voters risk lives for what we have

Photo by Andrea Doray
Campaign banners and posters in residential Kathmandu
Photo by Andrea Doray
Political banners and posters hang in Kathmandu before the election.
Photo
Andrea W. Doray, Alchemy
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In a brief moment of Internet connectivity while traveling in Nepal a couple of weeks ago, I glimpsed headlines reporting that state Sen. Evie Hudak had resigned rather than face a possible recall election.

Before I left, I’d seen banners urging residents to sign the recall petition. Yard signs in support of Hudak had also begun to appear, and letters to the editor in spoke urgently and earnestly to both sides.

I was ambivalent about the whole thing; I’d carefully cast my votes in the general election and was willing to wait until the next one. However, what happened to me in Nepal — where voters risked their lives to cast their votes — changed the way I’ll view elections in the U.S. forever.

In advance of my trip, I was practicing my Nepali with the good people at Yak & Yeti when one of my new friends became concerned that I would be in Nepal during their national Constituent Assembly election. The election would put people chosen by voters into a parliamentary type of government for the express purpose of drafting a constitution, and would be only the second national election since Nepal’s violent civil war ended in 2006 after claiming more than 13,000 lives.

My friend’s concern was that I would be caught up in, at best, a general strike that would shut down private and public transportation, shops, businesses, and visitor attractions. At worst, the violence that had led up to the elections could spill over from internal clashes to tourists like me in Nepal at the height of trekking season.

I admit that, as a journalist, I was more intrigued by the situation than worried. What was a little inconvenience when I would be witnessing history? In fact, I more than witnessed this historic event; in a very small way, I was part of it.

My trek was to start Nov. 19, the day of the election, and my hosts were clearly concerned about getting some 30 people to Pokhara, a picturesque lakeside city at the base of the Annapurna range that served as the jumping-off point for treks. The previous couple of days in Kathmandu had been filled with shouting crowds in open-backed trucks moving through the city with loudspeakers, campaigning for their candidates. I saw heavily armed military on the streets and learned later that the government had deployed two-thirds of the army to thwart opposition groups intimidating people registering to vote.

I’ve seen movies depicting Westerners in similar situations, but actually experiencing it was somewhat surreal. We boarded our private buses on the 18th, assured that attacks had been limited to party leaders and locals who defied the strike. As our bus attempted to head west out of Kathmandu, though, we were stopped at a blockade. About an hour later, our trekking guide got back on to tell us that the government was assembling tourist buses together and escorting us in groups to Pokhara.

I personally never felt in danger, and we arrived without incident, passing through several military checkpoints, but a curious thing happened along the way: Nepalese citizens also riding nearly unnoticed on our bus got off quietly at small villages and crossroads, going home to vote. Not only were they taking advantage of the only transportation available, but they were also safer from the violence that threatened voters.

Protesters boycotting the elections had already torched six buses and trucks that had defied the strike, killing one person and injuring more than 30 others. Schools, private businesses, and shops were closed in fear of retaliation, and riot police joined soldiers patrolling the streets. Earlier in the campaign, a candidate was shot dead by a former member of his party, and the wife of another candidate had acid poured on her face.

Then came the news that, on election day in Kathmandu, some children found a makeshift bomb near one of the polling places in a middle-class residential neighborhood, and, yes, it blew up in their hands. They were critically injured. Opposition activists stormed other polling stations throughout the country, clashing with police.

And yet, and yet … an astounding 70 percent of Nepal’s registered voters braved the volatile situation to show up at the polls. By contrast, voter turnout for the 2012 U.S. presidential election has been reported at just 57.5 percent of eligible voters, down about 5 percentage points from 2008.

This dismal showing is often attributed to voter apathy, a sense that nothing we as citizens say or do will effect real change in America’s politics. At a time when Congressional job approval hovers at a lowest-ever 9 percent, a polarized two-party environment is more intent on destroying itself than allowing its members to do what they truly believe is best for the country.

Which brings me back to the efforts to recall state Sen. Evie Hudak. As I understand the situation, some voters believe Hudak betrayed them with her support of gun control measures; others think that she acted appropriately in the best interest of Colorado.

Recall petitioning is part of our legal election process, whatever the circumstances of the situation. So there’s something I want to say to both sides of any future recall effort:

Think carefully and act with integrity. Use voices of reason rather than bluster. And always do what you think is right … because you can — without fear of bombs, retaliation, and polling place violence.

I have just witnessed extraordinary Nepalese literally risking their lives to cast votes in a democratic election, even though they — as we sometimes do — fear their belligerent leaders will only worsen the situation with infighting and intimidation.

Here in the U.S., despite a pervading distrust and disapproval of those we have elected to serve us, we have a duty to preserve our legal process of free and democratic elections, including petitions and referendums. We have an obligation to avert violence and intimidation, both at the polls and in our support of candidates and ideals.

And we have a responsibility vote, shattering the complacency of the other half of our nation that believes it makes no difference.

Both exercising and protecting our hard-won right to free elections, must be ongoing mandates for Americans. Because we can.

Andrea Doray is a writer who visited Nepal at the same time as former president Jimmy Carter, who was leading a cadre of international election observers, although they didn’t have a chance to get together. Contact her at a.doray@andreadoray.com.