KATMANDU, Nepal – Braving a string of pre-election violence, millions of Nepalis went to the polls on yesterday for landmark elections that could end a bloody chapter in the country’s history even as they usher in a raft of new worries for the future.
The elections are poised to abolish the monarchy and turn Maoist guerrillas into elected officials. Having quit their 10-year war against the state, the former rebels are vying for seats in a 601-member Assembly that will rewrite the constitution and govern the country in the meantime.
Final election results are not expected for what could be several weeks – a period that many fear could breed unrest, as rival parties contest one another’s margins of victory. Political analysts here have said it was unlikely that any one party would win a landslide. In the end, who loses will count as much as who wins, and how gamely the leaders of the three main parties, including the Maoists, accept defeat, no matter what the margin.
“After a long time there is hope things will change,” said Gita Dahal, 26, as she stepped out of a polling station in Panauti, a town east of this capital. “I hope we can live peacefully after this. I hope we can live without fear.”
In the center of Panauti stood a searing reminder of fear: the shell of a building that housed the local government office and that the Maoists bombed about two years ago, their last major attack before signing a peace deal in November 2006.
Election-day violence was far less intense than widely feared, given the insecurity of the campaign season. The chief of U.N. Mission in Nepal, Ian Martin, said he was pleasantly surprised to call it “overwhelmingly peaceful.”
“The bigger challenge,” he said, “is the political parties’ respecting the outcome and working together.”
The Election Commission confirmed that two people were killed yesterday. One was a candidate in the southern plains plagued for several months by violent demands for greater autonomy, according to The Associated Press.
An international monitoring group said one man was killed in another southern district, Sunsari, amid clashes between the Nepali Congress Party and a new ethnic political party representing the plains people, known as Madhesis. Agence France-Presse said a third was killed in a fight between opposing political parties in Mahottari district.
Out of nearly 21,000 voting booths, the Election Commission said, voting had to be suspended in 33, after rival parties sought to seize and destroy voting materials, in one case pouring water on a ballot box and burning it in another. The number of stations where votes have to be cast again is likely to rise.
Of Nepal’s 17.6 million registered voters, about 60 percent participated.
The Constituent Assembly, as it is called, will decide everything from whether Nepal remains a Hindu kingdom to what new rights will be extended to its long marginalized communities to the very system of government.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter called it the most “transformational” of the 70 elections he had observed around the world. His Carter Center is among several international observer teams deployed across the country.
In a hamlet nestled in the hills of Kavre district, east of the capital, a group of men sat on the grass and recalled how during the war, the Maoists would storm their homes, demanding food and shelter. After they had left, the security forces would come demanding to know why they had fed and sheltered the rebels.
One man, Khetraj Kafle, 60, said he hoped the Maoists would win a few seats and lose their appetite for war. “If the new ones get a chance, it might be easier for them to live a normal life,” he said.
His relative, Ram Hari Kafle, 52, echoed the fears of many when he said he feared that the Maoists would not accept a resounding defeat, and that it would be better if they won a few seats for the sake of peace.
The Maoist chairman, known by his nom de guerre, Prachanda, or in Nepali, the Fierce One, has promised to abide by the election verdict.
Even some of the staunchest critics of the former rebels said the elections would force the former rebels to behave, in exchange for any shot at power. That the Maoists would use the polls to try and seize power once and for all was a “stereotypical and unrealistic fear,” said David Pottie, associate director of the democracy program at the Carter Center, which is based in Atlanta.
The U.S. ambassador, Nancy Powell, said in an interview that the Maoists, whatever their numbers in the would-be constituent assembly, would be “constrained” by the logic of parliamentary politics even as they tried to assert their ideological agenda.