TEMPATHANG, Nepal — The treacherous trail that connects this remote Sherpa village in the Himalayas to the rest of the world was unusually crowded over the weekend as scores of voters walked for hours across narrow mountain ridges to vote in Nepal’s first parliamentary elections since 2006.
Young men raced down jagged slopes laughing and listening to songs blaring from their phones. Mothers carried babies in slings and baskets. The night before the election, many camped near the polling station, sharing food and talking politics into the early morning hours.
Nepal’s Sherpas, skilled mountaineers famous for guiding Western adventurers to difficult summits, have lived on some of the world’s most brutal terrain for centuries. While Nepal’s neighbors in Asia have experienced decades of rapid growth, the country’s experience has been different. Corruption and instability have stalled development in the tiny Himalayan nation, leaving Sherpa villages with limited access to power, health care and education. Now many hope Nepal’s transition from a monarchy to a federalized republic will bring with it modern basics. “Democracy is happiness,” one voter said, “and happiness is roads.”
Wangdhi Sherpa woke at 4 a.m. Sunday to walk to the polling station. “If we vote, there will be development,” he said at dawn as he walked along the grueling trail that lies around 75 miles north of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. “Yesterday, many people in the village were asking others to vote. They were saying, ‘You can’t blame the government for not developing the village if you don’t vote.’ “
Sherpas were among the 2 million Nepalis in the hills and mountains who voted in the first phase of elections Sunday. A second phase of voting will take place Dec. 7 in towns and cities. Elections are held on two separate days because Nepal’s mountainous geography makes the logistics of voting a challenge. New national and provincial governments are expected to be announced early next year.
For Nepalis, the elections are a bright spot after years of instability. In the past 28 years, Nepal has had 26 changes of government. Previous experiments with democracy in the 1950s and 1990s disintegrated. Then came one disaster after another: Ten members of the royal family were shot dead by the crown prince at a dinner party in 2001; a decadelong civil war claimed more than 16,000 lives; and a devastating earthquake in 2015 killed more than 8,000 people and left thousands homeless.
Amid such turmoil, elections are a festive event: Sunday’s voting saw an estimated 65 percent turnout of those eligible to vote that day, notably high given low literacy rates and the difficulty in reaching polling stations. Before heading to the polls, Kami Sherpa put on his best suit and hat. “My country is becoming more beautiful today,” he said, “so I should also look my best.”
But for others, enthusiasm for Nepal’s future is tempered by experience with past failures. Yangi Sherpa, one of the few who stayed home in Tempathang during polling, said: “They say they’ll make roads, give us electricity. They’ve been saying these things for a while, but nothing happens.”
Although there was scattered violence, Nepal’s election commission declared the day a “historic success.” Former chief election commissioner Bhojraj Pokharel attributed the high voter turnout to Nepalis’ competitive spirit. “We love democracy,” he said. “Whether we understand it is a different thing.”
Since the civil war ended in 2006, Nepalis have twice elected assemblies to write a constitution. Local elections were held for the first time in 20 years this summer. Now, for the first time after these elections, newly created provincial governments will have significant power to oversee regional development.
At the national level, the competition for leadership in this election is between the Nepali Congress Party, led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, and the Left Alliance, combining the party of formerly insurgent Maoists and the Unified Marxist-Leninist party, rivals just a few months ago in local elections.
The election is being closely watched in New Delhi and Beijing as Nepal’s giant neighbors wrestle for influence in the region. The Left Alliance is capitalizing on anti-India sentiment after what some Nepalis call a “blockade” by India in 2015 when the country was devastated after the earthquake. India’s government has denied imposing a blockade. A victory for the Left Alliance, observers say, could increase Chinese influence in Nepal, where India has traditionally wielded diplomatic sway as a major trading partner.
Voters’ hopes for a bright future seem misguided to some. Levels of corruption in Nepal are among thehighestin South Asia, and politicians switch allegiances on a whim to form coalitions and vote leaders in and out of government. Instability mars efforts to develop the country’s infrastructure. Many villages are still unconnected to road networks and 1 in 4 Nepalis live below the national poverty line.
Even the National Reconstruction Authority, set up to manage emergency earthquake relief, was riven by infighting and chaos, leaving rebuilding plans unfinished and billions of dollars in pledged foreign donations untapped.
“Election manifestoes are whimsical and unrealistic,” said Sudip Pokharel, director of the Democracy Resource Center, an independent organization in Kathmandu that observes elections. “They promise things like cable cars and Wi-Fi for everyone when even basic needs are not met. Politicians keep winning because of patronage networks, which means there is no incentive for parties to think about their agendas.”
Even former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal acknowledged that the country is beset by “rampant corruption” as his car hurtled through Kathmandu’s narrow streets. “There are many lacunas, loopholes and institutions that are not strong,” he said.
While political parties in the capital continue to debate new procedures of governance, the Sherpas of Tempathang are desperate for government support for infrastructure. The village is virtually cut off from cities for half the year during winter and the monsoon season. Many of the Sherpas make a meager living rearing a yak-cow hybrid called dzo. The nearest doctor is a six-hour walk down the mountain, and the village school provides only primary education.
“We just have to trust them,” Nurbu Sherpa, 55, said of political parties. He was wearing an “I heart Nepal” baseball cap in Tempathang and discussing politics the night before the elections. “They know what’s good for the country.”
“You should demand basic things like telephones, drinking water, health care and good schools,” replied Sonam Sherpa, who spent his childhood in Tempathang but now works as a trekking guide based in Kathmandu.
“A mobile tower is needed,” he said, noting that villagers have to hike an hour to get a signal to make cellphone calls.
Nurbu and Sonam cast their ballots the following morning.
Most of the villagers who trekked down from Tempathang carried supplies on the return trip: flour, eggs, packets of chips. Pashang Sherpa saddled himself with a large sack of rice as he prepared to make the six-hour journey.
“I’ve taken care of my responsibility now,” he said, “and I can go home.”