Western culture often sees the Himalayas as a land of exotic nostalgia, a Shangri-La where the past lives on in all its anachronistic glory. So it turned out last week, when final results from Nepal’s election confirmed a clear victory for the country’s Maoists — a political tendency that the rest of the world regards as well past its use-by date.

The elections were the result of the 2006 political crisis in Nepal, in which King Gyanendra’s personal dictatorship — which he had justified as necessary for waging war against the Maoist insurgency — was overthrown by mass protests. Having in effect staged a successful revolution, it was perhaps not so surprising that many Nepalis voted for a revolutionary party.

They may also have understood, as voters did last year in Northern Ireland, that peace cannot be achieved just by electing moderates. It’s the extremists that have to be brought within the tent; as the BBC’s correspondent put it, the voters “have cannily thought of a way to prevent the former rebels going back to conflict.”

The Maoists also seem to have won credit for consistently pushing for a republic, while the mainstream parties, despite the king’s misdeeds, had dragged their feet on the issue (Kevin Rudd take note). According to the BBC, they have now promised the king “would be accorded economic, social and cultural respect as a citizen of Nepal if he co-operated with the abolition of the monarchy”.

Malcolm Mackerras often quotes David Butler’s remark that “electoral history is littered with unexpected landslides”. This one certainly met the criterion of unexpectedness, but it was something short of a landslide; the Maoists finished with 220 of the 575 elected seats; twice as many as their nearest rivals, but well short of a majority in their own right. (Official results are here; Wikipedia has a summary, and no doubt Adam Carr will soon have one as well.)

The Maoists will therefore have to cooperate with other parties in order to form a government, and while the “Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist)”, with 103 seats, might sound like a natural coalition partner, in reality they are sworn enemies. Clearly all sides are going to have to learn some new habits.

No-one seems more surprised by their victory than the Maoists themselves, as evidenced by the fact that they had strongly argued for the elections to be held by proportional representation — nearly always a sign that a party expects to be in a minority. A compromise system was agreed upon, but the Maoists ended up doing better in the first-past-the-post seats than in the PR part.

If the whole election had been PR, their 29.3% of the vote would have only won them about 170 seats. It’s a reminder that it’s always worth looking behind the headlines when it comes to election news: what matters is not just how people vote, but how the system translates that into seats.