Nepal votes in final round of historic polls

KATHMANDU – Nepal voted Thursday in the final round of historic parliamentary elections aimed at drawing a line under years of conflict and political turmoil in the Himalayan country.

Thousands of police and soldiers were deployed in the capital Kathmandu and the volatile southern lowlands for the vote after pre-election violence that left one dead and dozens injured.

It was the second phase of a watershed election for national and provincial parliaments under a new constitution that represents the culmination of the transition from feudal monarchy to federal democracy following a brutal civil war that ended 11 years ago.

It will establish the country’s first provincial assemblies, devolving power away from a top-heavy central government.

Retired teacher Harihar Prasad Yadav said he hoped that would bring stability to a country that has cycled through 10 leaders in the last 11 years, hampering development after a decade of conflict and a devastating earthquake.

“People will get better representation and the development agendas of the country will be in focus,” he said after casting his ballot in the southern city of Birgunj.

The newly-elected assemblies will be tasked with naming their provinces, choosing capitals and negotiating budgets with Kathmandu – all sensitive issues that could rekindle tensions in the ethnically-diverse south.

The populous south is home to a mosaic of ethnic minorities who say the new constitution leaves them politically marginalised, a cause that has sparked bloody protests in recent years.

Political analyst Chandra Kishor Jha said violence could return if the promises of a fairer distribution of power were not met under the new federal system.

“If they cannot fulfil their promises then the groups that have been part of the struggle will not stay quiet. There is possibility of conflict again,” he told AFP.

Over two decades of political turbulence have hampered development in the impoverished country, which is still recovering from a powerful earthquake that hit in April 2015, killing 9,000 people and destroying over half a million homes.

It took nine years after the end of a decade-long civil war to agree to a new constitution. The charter adopted in 2015 mandated a sweeping overhaul of Nepal’s political system to give greater autonomy to the provinces.

But it also sparked deadly protests in the south by ethnic minority groups who say the charter leaves them politically marginalised, and have demanded changes to it.

The communist CPN-UML party is expected to sweep the polls, buoyed by its alliance with the main Maoist party comprised of former rebels who fought government forces for a decade.

But the nationalist CPN-UML has strongly opposed amending the constitution to address the demands of ethnic minorities whom it views as being more closely aligned with India.

Many in the southern lowlands share close linguistic and cultural ties with Indians across the border.

Nepal’s powerful neighbour to the south has long played the role of big brother in the landlocked country.

But in recent years Kathmandu has played diplomatic ping-pong with its two large neighbours, India and China, who use big-ticket infrastructure projects to vie for influence.

Around 8.1 million people – 67 percent of eligible voters – cast their ballot in Thursday’s second phase of voting, according to the election commission.

Nepal’s mountainous north voted in the first phase 10 days ago.

The complicated task of counting the ballots from both stages of the election now begins, with results expected in a few days.

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