Conflict dampens Nepal vote

More than half of the posts up for grabs in Wednesday's municipal elections have no candidates.

One year after King Gyanendra seized absolute power, war-torn Nepal heads to the polls to vote in municipal elections hobbled by Maoist attacks and a boycott by most political parties.

The king is facing mounting calls to put the small Himalayan nation back on a democratic path. Wednesday's nationwide polls, the first in seven years, are part of an effort by the palace to start that process.

But few of those pushing for democracy - including political leaders, journalists, professional groups, and foreign observers - are welcoming the vote. So deep is the disenchantment, and widespread the Maoist reach, that more than half of all offices up for grabs have no candidates.

The pre-election troubles display the extent of Gyanendra's isolation following authoritarian efforts to strengthen his hand against the Maoists. Observers say that rather than gaining ground on the battlefield, the king has only alienated civil society.

The European Union called the elections a "backward step for democracy," and the International Crisis Group (ICG) said the vote would not help end the 10-year conflict that has already claimed 13,000 lives.

"Nepal's royal government is inviting confrontation by forcing through, amidst a new crackdown on civil liberties, municipal elections ... which will not be free, fair, or credible," states an ICG report. "The confrontation between an increasingly isolated palace and increasingly militant mainstream activists has benefited the Maoists."

Gyanendra assumed executive powers on Feb. 1, 2005, dismissing an elected government, arresting leaders, and curbing civil liberties and press freedom. The king said he would use the powers to finally defeat the insurgency, something democratic leaders had failed to do. The move sparked global condemnation. India, Britain, and later the US - all longtime supporters of the king - imposed an arms embargo.

In September, Maoists announced a unilateral cease-fire that lasted for four months. The palace's refusal to reciprocate laid the ground for a political shift in November. An alliance of seven major political parties hammered out a 12-point understanding with the Maoists to fight "autocratic monarchy" - leaving room for a ceremonial king. (Tuesday, the Maoist chief told a Nepali newspaper that he could accept a constitutional monarchy.) The agreement also called for constituent assembly elections with UN arms supervision of both the rebels and the Army.

Some observers, including the ICG, see the agreement as a road map for an eventual peace process. So far, however, the palace has staked out an independent course, with plans to eventually follow up Wednesday's vote with parliamentary elections.

"The election is a farce," says Shanker Pokharel, a leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist, a major party in the alliance agitating for democracy. "The King is morally incapable of holding an election. It has already failed."

Meanwhile, the Maoists have ended their cease-fire, called for a strike, and assassinated two candidates. Tuesday, rebel attacks killed nine people, including a taxi driver.

The government has urged citizens to stand against this intimidation campaign. "The Nepali people can give a message for lasting peace and democracy through these elections," interior minister Kamal Thapa told reporters Tuesday.

Out of 4,146 mayoral and local official posts in 58 municipalities across 43 of the 75 districts in the country, only 3,255 candidates filed nominations. None were from the seven-party alliance, which represented 90 percent of the seats in the last parliament.

Some 650 candidates - many advised by family members not to risk their lives - have subsequently withdrawn their bids, leaving 2,104 seats with no candidates at all.

In many districts, such as Dailekh, candidates could not withdraw as they were whisked to security camps "for their safety" and have been kept there. Family members have no access to them.

The election commission has offered insurance to candidates ranging between $7,000 and $10,000. The hefty sums have drawn people with no political backgrounds, such as sweepers and woodcutters.

In several municipalities, people were surprised to find themselves candidates. Sunaina Devi Paswan found out she was filed as a candidate in Jaleswore. "They fooled me into signing the candidacy paper stating that it was a form for a women's credit group." She has since withdrawn.

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