Violence marred the runup to an election meant to cement a peace deal with Nepal's communist insurgents, leaving at least eight people dead and stoking fears the actual vote could be even bloodier.
Thursday's election is intended to bring sweeping changes to this long-troubled Himalayan country, and will likely mean the end of a centuries-old royal dynasty.
But with one candidate mysteriously gunned down, a protester shot by police and six former rebels slain in a clash with police in the past two days, it was clear on Wednesday that fashioning a lasting peace in this largely impoverished, often ill-governed and frequently violent country will not be easy.
"For the peace process to be successful, the election needs to be credible," said Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of the newsweekly Samay. The violence "raises a lot of questions about how credible the election will be."
"The demonstrator was killed on Wednesday after police fired on a mob of hundreds smashing shops and vandalizing buses to protest the slaying a day earlier of a candidate in the mountainous Surkhet district," said the area's police chief, Ram Kumar Khanal. "Police did not have any suspects in the candidate's slaying," he said. A curfew was in place in the remote district, and authorities said that they would delay the election in the area by at least a week, though the vote would go ahead elsewhere.
Thursday's election is the first in the two years since King Gyanendra was forced to end his royal dictatorship and the Maoists, as the former rebels are known, gave up their 10-year fight for a communist state that left about 13,000 people dead. For the 27 million people of Nepal, wedged between Asian giants India and China, the vote brings a promise of peace and an economic revival in this grindingly poor land that often more resembles medieval Europe than a modern state.
But after weeks of near-daily clashes between supporters of rival parties and a handful of small bombings including two in Katmandu on Wednesday that caused no injuries the mood on election eve was one of ambivalent optimism.
"We have no choice but to be hopeful," said Biraj Shresthra, a 43-year-old who runs a Katmandu electronics shop. "We've seen so much fighting. May be now it will stop."
Campaigning ended Monday and security was tight across the country on Wednesday as Nepalis scrambled back to their home towns and villages. Many businesses were closed and roads wide open in Nepal's ordinarily traffic-choked cities.
Chief Election Commissioner Bhoj Raj Pokhrel told reporters that "we are all concerned regarding election day violence." He did not elaborate, but the biggest threats to a peaceful vote are armed minority ethnic groups on the southern plains where fighting has twice delayed the poll, and the Maoists, whose supporters are accused of roughing up rival candidates and attempting to intimidate voters.
That's not to say supporters of other parties _ from the centrist Nepali Congress to the left-wing Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist)have abstained from going after each other. But the majority of the violence since the start of the election campaign has been carried out by the Maoists, according to a United Nations mission overseeing the vote,
A gang of Maoists clashed with police on Tuesday in southwestern Nepal after the former insurgents attacked a prominent candidate from a rival party. Initial reports said that one person was killed, but police said on Wednesday that six were slain.
The Maoists are the wild card. They have 20,000 ex-fighters camped across the country and their weapons are easily accessible containers under a U.N.-monitored peace deal.
It would be easy for them to return to the bush if they don't like the election results, and one of the big questions was whether they would do well enough to keep them engaged in the peace process. Most observers believe that the Maoists will place second or third behind Nepal's traditional electoral powers, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). For now, the Maoists say that they will respect the voters' decision, and their leader urged restraint following Tuesday's clash. "We should respond to such provocative crimes by the feudal forces ... through demonstrations of patience and determination in favor of free and fair polls," said Pushpa Kamal Dahal, whose goes by his rebel nom de guerre, Prachanda, which means "the fierce one" in Nepali.
Along with the Maoists, dozens of parties, from centrist democrats to old-school royalists, are competing for seats in a so-called Constituent Assembly, which will govern Nepal and rewrite its constitution.
Nepal's king, meanwhile, made a rare statement on Wednesday urging people to vote. "We call upon all adult citizens to exercise their democratic right in a free and fair environment," he said in a written statement.
But his good wishes may come too late to endear him to those who will decide his future the candidates elected in Thursday's vote. Their first order of business: deciding whether to get rid of the throne. And the major parties have already agreed that the 239-year-old Shah dynasty should go.