NEW DELHI -- Defying nearly everyone's expectations but their own, Nepal's former Maoist rebels took a commanding lead yesterday in partial results from last week's election, a showing that could have profound effects on the Himalayan nation.
With the votes tabulated in more than two-thirds of the 240 seats contested by direct election for an assembly charged with writing a new constitution, the Maoists have won 105 and are ahead in seven more districts, Nepal's Election Commission reported.
The tally dwarfs that of the two other major parties: the Nepali Congress, with 30 seats, and a communist grouping known as the UML, with 24.
The results have confounded analysts, most of whom predicted before Thursday's vote that the Maoists would come in third. But without any proper polling data available, those forecasts were little more than guesses about the outcome of Nepal's first election in nine years.
Many observers still believe that the Maoists, who laid down their arms in November 2006 after a decade of guerrilla war, will find it hard to land a majority in the new 601-member constituent assembly. Under the complex rules governing that body's composition, 335 seats will be allocated proportionally to the parties based on the results of a separate ballot cast Thursday. The remaining seats will be appointed.
It could be several days before the full makeup of the assembly becomes clear.
Throughout the campaign, claims by the Maoists' leader, who goes by the nom de guerre Prachanda, that his party would sweep the vote were dismissed by commentators as bravado.
But as results trickled in, including Prachanda's own win in a Maoist stronghold on the edge of the capital, Katmandu, many of his supporters began declaring victory. They have ignored their leadership's warning not to celebrate prematurely and thronged the streets.
While election observers called the vote generally free and fair, outbreaks of violence and reports of intimidation, most of it allegedly by Maoist cadres, marred the election campaign. Some voters also might have feared that the Maoists would take up arms again if they were denied a victory at the polls.
The insurgency, in which more than 13,000 people died, still gives some Nepalis pause over the idea of the Maoists in government. The United States lists the Maoists as a terrorist group; during its 10-year peoples war, the group was internationally condemned for its campaign of killings, torture and kidnappings.
But the pundits might have underestimated the thirst for change among a populace none too impressed with how the other parties performed in office, which brought little improvement to their lives.
Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times.