Nepalis Defy Violence, Head To Polls

People wait for their turn to vote in the former Maoist stronghold of Rolpa, Nepal, Thursday April 10, 2008.
AP Photo/Saurabh Das
Nepalis have voted in a historic election intended to bring communist insurgents into the country's democratic mainstream and expected to end the world's last Hindu monarchy.

Voters lined up before dawn across the country, undeterred by violence that marred the days preceding the country's first election in nine years.

Voting was smooth throughout much of the Himalayan country, but there was scattered violence, including an attempt to kill one candidate, the torching of a polling station and the death of one man in a clash between political rivals.

The election of a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution has been touted as the cornerstone of a 2006 peace deal struck with former rebels known as Maoists following weeks of unrest that forced Nepal's king to end his dictatorship and restore democracy.

"I came to vote here today believing this process will settle political instability for good," said Mukunda Maraseni, a 40-year-old banker waiting to cast his ballot in Katmandu.

Security was tight with 17.6 million people registered to vote at about 20,000 polling stations, some of them a seven-day walk from the nearest paved road. The election was being monitored by some 100,000 observers, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Disturbances were reported in at least a half dozen remote areas.

Motorcycle-riding gunmen shot at a candidate in the southern town of Janakpur but she escaped unhurt, said district officer Ram Sharan Chimoiorya.

In the central village of Galkot, Maoists tried to take over a polling station and then torched the building after scuffling with police and election officials, said the area's top official, Bhawani Prashad Parajuli. Police later arrested 15 men, seizing three grenades and a knife.

Maoist officials in Katmandu said they were trying to verify the report, but insisted there was no concerted effort on their part to undermine the election.

In the southern village of Bhutana, a man died after being seriously wounded in a clash between supporters of the centrist Nepali Congress and a minority ethnic group, the Madeshis, who have long agitated for more autonomy, said a local official, Rajan Pokhrel.

Polling was suspended at about 20 stations, including a few in the eastern Ramechap district where Maoists blocked representatives of other parties from observing the vote, said Home Ministry spokesman Ekmani Nepal.

Despite the scattered violence, there was widespread optimism that the election would finally bring lasting peace and an economic revival to the impoverished Himalayan nation, where 60 percent of the 27 million people are under age 35 and many were voting for the first time.

About 35 percent of voters had cast ballots by noon, halfway through the voting, said Home Secretary Umesh Mainali.

"I have come of age never being allowed to choose my government," said 26-year-old Yuvraj Sharma, who works at the Home Ministry. "If the people are heard, we will have peace."

However, significant challenges remain after the election of the 601-seat Constituent Assembly, which will govern Nepal and rewrite the country's constitution.

All the major parties, including the Maoists, centrist democrats and hard-core royalists, say they will accept the results. But election-related violence could easily provide a pretext for rejecting the outcome.

Then there is the complexity of the vote itself - a mix of direct elections and a nationwide proportional representation system with quotas for women and Nepal's myriad ethnic and caste groups.

Even electoral experts from the U.N. and other international groups say it will be hard to sort out the results, which are not expected until late April or early May.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, has warned that the days and weeks after the vote will be dangerous.

"Parties will trade allegations of fraud and violence," it said in a report. "The behavior of powerful losers will shape the immediate aftermath."

Those powerful losers could include the Maoists, expected to place behind Nepal's traditional electoral powers, the Nepal Congress and left-wing Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist).

The U.N. says the Maoists have been behind a majority of the election-related violence. They also have 20,000 former fighters camped across the country, and their weapons are stored in easily accessible containers under a U.N.-monitored peace deal.

Observers also worry about armed minority ethnic groups on the southern plains, where fighting twice delayed the vote. The area is now peaceful, but armed groups who want more autonomy for their people have threatened to disrupt the election.

But there is one man who is as close to a sure loser as Nepal has at the moment - King Gyanendra. The major parties have already agreed to abolish the 239-year-old monarchy at the assembly's first sitting.