Like the Maoists, the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas was a US- designated terrorist organisation which for years had shunned mainstream politics in favour of armed resistance. Hamas' decision to stand in the 2006 Palestinian elections followed lengthy internal debate between party hardliners on the one hand, who believed that violence alone would achieve change, and moderates on the other, who argued that the ballot box could be just as effective. In early 2006, Hamas moderates appeared to have prevailed.
Hamas' electoral success, so soon after it had entered mainstream politics, took Palestinians, Israelis and the international community by surprise. The party's emphasis on anti-corruption measures, social justice and the rule of law ? its offer of 'change and reform' together with the 'right to resist' ? appealed to a broad spectrum of Palestinians, who abandoned the traditional nationalist Fatah party in favour of the newcomers.
Nepal's Maoists also surprised both traditional nationalist parties and the international community. The Maoists' election was greeted with cautious optimism. However, Indian and US officials quickly agreed to meet their leaders and a number of donors boosted aid to Nepal after the elections.
The international response to Hamas' election, two years earlier, had been quite different. The United States and Israel, sceptical of Hamas' promise to control militants, called for an immediate, comprehensive boycott of the new Palestinian government. International aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) shrank dramatically. Israel withheld revenues that it collects on the PA's behalf, and arrested several Palestinian members of parliament. Palestinian revenues plummeted and the PA became unable to pay for medicine, fuel or civil servants' salaries.
External interventions had a profound impact on the Hamas-led PA's capacity to govern. Deprived of funds and facing collapsing public services, Hamas made a deal with their rivals, Fatah, and formed a National Unity Government. The international boycott was nonetheless maintained, and some international agents secretly supplied arms to militant wings of both Palestinian factions.
In June 2007, the fragile National Unity Government collapsed and violence erupted between the factions. Days of fighting followed in which Palestinians killed Palestinians. The result was the takeover of Gaza by Hamas militants, and the self-appointment of a new government in the West Bank led by technocrats and members of the Fatah 'old guard'. Several leading Hamas moderates resigned.
Over a year after the bloody events in Gaza, these two Palestinian 'governments' are still in place. Gaza is isolated, and this week has come under unprecedented aerial bombardment. Hamas hardliners who advocate violence rather than compromise now appear to dominate the movement.
The Palestinian political situation remains deadlocked. Palestinians are tired of Hamas violence, but they also recognise that the traditional nationalists remain unreformed. And for now, there is no democratic way out: neither the international community, Israel nor Fatah is pushing for elections when the favoured 'moderate' party might lose again. Meanwhile, the goals that matter most for ordinary Palestinians (peace, stability, the rule of law, a functioning state and economy) remain far out of reach.
Nepal's Maoists, like the Palestinian Hamas, won the popular vote on the basis of promises to establish the rule of law, promote social justice and establish an equitable and meritocratic society. Hamas failed to deliver on these promises, but at least part of this failure was imposed from 'outside'. Hamas never had a chance to show their mettle, or reveal their lack of it, to the people who elected them.
Compared with Hamas, the Maoists have been left relatively free from external interference. They now have an opportunity to demonstrate that they can work with others, overcome extremists within their own ranks, and transform themselves from militants to responsible and democratic leaders.
During the past weeks, the Maoist leaders' capacity to stand up to extreme elements in their party has been severely tested. Intolerant, violent elements may prevail over those who argue for dialogue and compromise in the search for national unity.
Democratic politics look messy in Nepal, but there are still reasons for optimism. First, political leaders are being tested in public. The internal dynamics of the parties are being worked out, their true colours revealed. This is what democracy is all about, and the system is working. Second, external meddling in Nepal's political affairs is relatively limited, so political leaders here will not be able to blame the neighbours or the superpower for failure to establish party discipline or deliver necessary reforms.
Nepali voters are no doubt watching current developments with great interest. In due course, if press freedom survives and this 'least worst' system of government prevails, they will review the record of the parties as revealed during these crucial months, and hold their leaders to account.
Elizabeth Sellwood worked for the United Nations in the Middle East
between 2003-07. She moved recently to Kathmandu.