Nepal holds elections key to peace process


  • ASEAN+
  • Tuesday, 19 Nov 2013

KATHMANDU, Nov 19, 2013 (AFP) - Polling stations in Nepal opened early Tuesday for elections that will be crucial in completing a peace process stalled for several years since the end of a decade-long civil war.

"Voting has begun all over the country," Bir Bahadur Rai, a spokesman for the election commission, told AFP.

The vote is only the second since a civil war launched by Maoist rebels concluded in 2006, ending royal rule and transforming the Himalayan nation into a secular republic.

Voters lined up outside polling stations nearly an hour before the polls opened on a foggy day in the capital, AFP reporters said, despite fears that many might stay home after recent violence by anti-election hardliners.

Nepalis flocked to the ballot box in the first constituent assembly elections in 2008 and delivered an overwhelming victory to the Maoist party, but have since grown frustrated following years of political infighting.

A series of coalition governments have failed to draft a constitution and complete the peace process, leading to the collapse of the first constituent assembly in May 2012.

The Maoists, led by former rebel leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as Prachanda, have since split, with a hardline faction boycotting Tuesday's polls.

Demonstrators from the splinter Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) have escalated efforts to disrupt the vote in recent days, torching vehicles and hurling explosives at traffic. Police have arrested more than 310 people.

Tirtha Narayan Manandhar, an 85-year-old retired businessman was among to first to cast his ballot at a polling station in central Kathmandu.

Manandhar, bundled up in two sweaters to guard against the cold, said he was "happy to have participated in the democratic process in my old age".

But, he added, "although I exercised my rights and cast my votes, I am not sure our belligerent leaders will deliver the constitution".

Security was tight throughout the country, after violent anti-poll protests left one dead and injured more than a dozen others in recent days.

The government has deployed 50,000 soldiers and 140,000 police personnel to guard polling stations.
Security measures include a ban on all public and most private transportation, meaning that nearly all voters will have to walk to polling stations to cast their ballot.

Only ambulances and vehicles belonging to the media, diplomatic organisations, non-profits, polling officials and election observers are allowed on the streets on Tuesday.

The Nepal army carried out a massive operation to deliver election materials to remote areas of the mountainous country, where only 43 percent of the population has access to gravel roads, according to the World Bank.

A Nepal army official, who oversaw the operations, said logistics involved the use of helicopters, ponies and porters in 18 of the country's 75 districts, including Solukhumbu, where the polling station nearest to the Mount Everest base camp is located.

"From the helipads at the district headquarters, porters carried it... even ponies and horses were used to carry the materials", said the official, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity.

Dozens of porters hiked in steep terrain, sometimes for up to eight hours, to deliver the ballot papers in time, he said.

More than 100 parties, including three major ones - the Unified Marxist-Leninist, the Nepali Congress and the Maoists - are fielding candidates for the 601-seat constituent assembly, which will also serve as a parliament.

A 33-party alliance, led by the CPN-M, says elections cannot be held under the interim administration headed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court and want polls to be postponed until a cross-party government is put in place.

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