Nepal's Historic Vote Tests New Democracy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AFTER decades of political stagnation, Nepal chooses a popularly elected government this weekend. But Sunday's multiparty poll, the first since 1959, is expected to yield indecisive results that could test the kingdom's ability to stay a democratic course, analysts say.

The election caps a year of violent upheaval which stripped Nepal's deified King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah of absolute powers and restored a democratic system to this tiny, impoverished, and illiterate kingdom among the Himalayas.

Thousands of Nepalis took to the streets last spring in pro-democracy demonstrations which, after several hundred people were killed and thousands arrested, forced the king to lift a ban on political parties and become a constitutional monarch.

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An interim government was formed by the Nepali Congress, the most prominent opposition group which spearheaded the pro-democracy movement, and two factions of the Nepal Communist Party. A new Constitution was drawn up.

The centrist Nepali Congress is poised to command the largest vote among the confusing gaggle of candidates and parties, political observers say.

More than 1,300 independents and candidates from 20 political parties vie for election to the 205-seat House of Representatives, although the election is expected to center on four major parties reflecting a broad spectrum of Nepali politics.

But disarray and divisions within the Congress could deny the party a majority and force it to patch together a coalition. That could undermine the stability of a new government and leave it vulnerable to old-line feudal politicians displaced by democratic reforms, diplomats say.

A number of small parties, believed to be creations of supporters of the old order, are boycotting the election in what is seen as a move to undermine its legitimacy.

``There are powerful traditional interests just waiting for this process to derail,'' says a Western diplomat.

A free and peaceful poll ``is a must to strengthen and institutionalize the new order,'' Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, acting president of the Nepali Congress, said recently.

Violence among rival parties, however, has mounted in recent weeks, raising fears of a tumultuous election day when more than 11 million Nepalis are expected to vote. The government is doubling its 30,000-member security force with temporary personnel to patrol the country's 14,000 polling booths.

A 60-member group, including former President Jimmy Carter and observers from 23 countries, are expected to monitor the voting.

By destabilizing the election, Nepali observers say, some parties hope to allow the king and the old aristocratic order to reassert itself. Birendra, the 46-year-old Harvard-educated king who has publicly backed the moved to multiparty democracy, is still revered as a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu by many of the 19 million Nepalis.

His father, Mahendra ended Nepal's democratic system 30 years ago, banning party politics and introducing a system of village councils known as panchayats.

``The very future of the ruling parties depends on conducting the elections in an impartial manner,'' Bekh Bahadur Thapa, a member of the observer team, recently told a Nepali newspaper.

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