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Experiencing a paramount election
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 For Erik Oliver, the decision to return to Nepal earlier this month to work as an elections monitor in the landlocked South Asian nation's Constituent Assembly elections was a natural one considering his history with the country.

Oliver, who currently serves as special assistant to the dean of Oxford College, previously spent time in Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1999-2001 where he worked in the field of urban youth development.

"I lived there for two and a half years," said Oliver about his recent trip in Nepal. "I made a lot friendships [and] developed a very personal appreciation for the country and care very deeply what happens to it."

When the Carter Center, a nonprofit founded by former President Jimmy Carter, which acts as a neutral party in international dispute resolutions, announced that it would observe the Constituent Assembly elections, Oliver was quick to submit his credentials which include five years of employment with the Carter Center prior to his time with the Peace Corps, experience speaking Nepali and experience as an elections monitor in Liberia.

As a partner of the Carter Center and a supporter of its mission to advance human rights, Oxford College of Emory University donated Oliver's time to the elections monitoring mission.

"It's huge for Nepal to get to this point and I wanted to help if I could," Oliver said.

Oliver traveled to Nepal as a part of a 60-member Carter Center election monitoring delegation deployed throughout the country. For 13 days Oliver traveled around his assigned district in Nepal with a fellow elections monitor, a translator and a driver.

As an elections monitor Oliver said his duties prior to the elections were to visit polling sites and to meet with representatives from all of the national parties, the district chiefs of police and national elections observers. Oliver says he also talked with many people on the street about what was to happen in the elections.

"We're trying to facilitate the democratization process of the country," Oliver said.

When he first traveled to Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer, Oliver said the Maoists, members of the Communist Party of Nepal, who in 1996 launched an insurgency to overthrow the royal parliamentary system of government and replace it with a people's republic, were not considered much of a threat by the royalists. By the time he left the tiny nation of 29 million in 2001, Oliver said the Maoist insurgency had become much bigger.

 Two days before Oliver returned home to the United States, nine members of the royal family including the king were allegedly assassinated by Crown Prince Dipendra, who then reportedly turned the gun on himself. The king's surviving brother, Gyanendra, assumed the throne.

"Since then a lot more of the country has fallen under control of the Maoists," Oliver said.

The insurgency, which continued with intermittent ceasefires until 2006, resulted in 13,000 deaths. Their tactics, which according to the U.S. Department of State's background note on Nepal, included murder, torture, bombings, kidnappings, extortion and the intimidation of civilians, police and public officials, resulted in the United States placing the Maoist United People's Front on its terrorist group list.

It wasn't until King Gyanendra, under deteriorating domestic conditions, ordered a state of emergency and suspended almost all fundamental rights that the major political parties of Nepal, including the formerly sidelined Maoists, were able to find a way to cooperate enough to hold massive countrywide protests in April 2006 which resulted in the king relinquishing his power.

On April 10 elections were held to elect members of a Constituent Assembly, which will be responsible for drafting the nation's new constitution. On that day Oliver traveled to a polling site for the opening of the polls then spent the day visiting as many polling sites as possible until the polls closed and it was time to watch the securing of the ballot boxes and to follow them to the collection point.

Oliver said he observed some minor elections irregularities but that as a Carter Center delegate, he was there merely to observe. Among the irregularities witnessed, Oliver said he saw incidents of underage voting, assisted voting and the presence of more party representatives at polling sites than officially allowed.

"There's an ideal [of free, fair and transparent elections] and even the U.S. elections don't meet that ideal. It's a spectrum," Oliver said, adding that with emerging democracies like Nepal it is expected that there will be irregularities.

Without the benefit of things like social security numbers and photo identification cards, Oliver said the Nepalese relied on their social network to limit fraudulent voting.

Oliver said the majority of leading parties were accused of intimidation tactics. Much of his time was spent figuring out which accusations were true and which were just rumor.  

 Oliver recalled a meeting in a hospital with a representative of the Madhesi, an ethnic group closely tied to India and largely marginalized in Nepal, who was shot three times by unidentified youth on motorcycles. Oliver said the targeted man had been an outspoken advocate of more rights for the Madhesi.

With all results in on Saturday, the Maoists had won a clear majority, though not the two-thirds majority necessary to oust the current prime minister and form a new government, according to a Nepalese news Web site,

Oliver said he fully expects the new constitution to completely do away with the monarchy and to institute a republic.

Though branded terrorists by the United States and a large contributor to much of the civil unrest, turmoil and death, which tore apart the country for 10 years, the people of Nepal were clearly ready for a change when they gave the Maoists a large majority of the votes.

"What I heard the most from people who supported Maoists was that the other parties had their chance and were not able to successfully lead Nepal," Oliver said, adding that absolute antagonists of the Maoists are saying they won on account of their intimidation tactics and threats of ending the ceasefire in place since 2006.

Still Oliver said he was surprised by the excitement he saw among common Nepalese for the Constituent Assembly and for the Maoists.

"Nepalese were ready for a change," he said.

With a Maoist-lead government in the works, Oliver said he believed the U.S. would have to carefully consider whether to remove the Maoists from its terrorist list. Whether the international order decides to recognize a Maoist-led government will heavily influence Nepal's future as the impoverished nation relies heavily on international aid.

"They don't have a sustainable system," Oliver said.

Still there is a great potential for economic development in Nepal especially in the areas of tourism and hydropower.

"I think anytime the people of a country are able to express their will and choose their leadership, it's a positive step," Oliver said.

Oliver said he hopes the Maoists keep their promises of developing the nation's education levels and improving freedom of expression.

"All indications are that they will," Oliver said. "Now we'll watch it unfold."

 Erik Oliver will present a personal account of his journey at 4 p.m. Monday at Oxford College's Tarbutton Theater.This event is free and open to the public. Parking is available at Allen Memorial United Methodist Church.