Nepalese turn out in force to vote

More than 60 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Special elections police officers monitor polling stations in Baktapur, near Kathmandu, Nepal.
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More than 60 percent of 17.6 million eligible voters in Nepal cast their votes Thursday in the first national election to take place in the country in nine years.

Nepal's former Maoist rebels, who people feared would engage in violence during the election, demonstrated a commitment to multiparty politics by participating in the election in a largely peaceful manner.

Unlike past elections that elected a government, the assembly that will be elected by Thursday's vote will end the country's 240-year monarchy, write a new constitution, and cap a two-year peace process with former Maoist rebels, who ended their deadly 10-year insurgency in 2006. The insurgency killed more than 13,000 Nepalese.

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Though the voting opened at 7 a.m. local time, people started queuing up outside polling centers from as early as 5 a.m.

"The turnout was very encouraging, voting was brisk, and the day was largely peaceful," said Election Commission official Dilli Ram Banstola.

Polling was canceled in 33 centers due to arson and intimidation, many of the incidents involving the Maoists, Chief Election Commissioner Bhoj Raj Pokharel told a press conference in Kathmandu Thursday evening.

But ordinary Nepalese were prepared for worse, especially after the killing of seven Maoist cadres and an election candidate in western Nepal Tuesday night. And cancellation of the election in 33 centers out of the total 20,800 centers hardly seemed to concern people.

"I had fears there would be a lot of violence during the election," said Nabin Mishra, 35, who, like many Nepalese anticipated worse after seeing the country plunge into violence for 10 years till 2006, and political uncertainty for two more years thereafter. "On the contrary, the election took place so smoothly."

Mr. Pokharel also announced that two people, including an independent candidate in southern Nepal, were killed by unidentified people during Thursday's voting.

Still, he noted, "Overall, the election was peaceful and successful. A clear picture of standings of political parties will be known in 10 days."

National, as well as international, observers expressed satisfaction that there were no serious incidents of violence. Among the observers were former US President Jimmy Carter, who came with his wife, Rosalynn, and the chief of the European Union observation mission, Jan Mulder.

"Any incident of violence is unfortunate, but I don't think it has interrupted the process," said President Carter, who visited polling booths throughout the day.

The voting centers were set up mostly in schools. People commuted on foot as the government has placed a ban on transport from Wednesday midnight to Thursday midnight to prevent troublemakers from rushing from one booth to another. Shops, businesses, and offices were closed to allow everyone to vote. Election day came on the fifth and final day of public holidays announced by the government.

While voting for different candidates and parties of their choice, many voters expressed the view that the election would bring lasting peace.

"I don't expect the election to miraculously solve all problems facing the country," said Hira Maharjan, a voter of Dhumbarahi area in Kathmandu. "But like everyone, I expect lasting peace."

On Wednesday, King Gyanendra delivered a message to the nation urging everyone to exercise their franchise to elect the assembly that will, ironically, end the monarchy. "It has always been our desire," he announced, "to ensure that under no circumstance are the nation's existence, independence ,and integrity compromised, and to build a prosperous and peaceful nation through a democratic polity in keeping with the verdict of the sovereign people...."

"We call upon all adult citizens to exercise their democratic right in a free and fair environment," he said in his last message to the people before a powerful elected assembly will declare the country a republic.

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