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Nepal votes amid rebel threats

The municipal elections, billed as a step back toward democracy, were intended by the Nepal's absolute king to quell the long-running power struggle.

india Updated: Feb 08, 2006 11:17 IST

Nepal held its first elections in seven years on Wednesday, with the king squaring off against communist rebels and dissidents who hoped to disrupt the polls and the government threatening to shoot anyone caught doing so.

The municipal elections, billed as a step back toward democracy, were intended by the Nepal's absolute king to quell the long-running power struggle among the monarchy, political parties and Maoist rebels.

Instead, they have exacerbated it, with rebel attacks and wildcat protests becoming near-daily occurrences.

As polls opened at 8.15 am on Wednesday, there were only a few voters at a polling station at the Royal Nepal Academy in a densely populated area of central Katmandu.

Other stations were reported to be just as empty, with dozens of soldiers guarding each one and electoral officials waiting behind rusty, green ballot boxes.

"I'm not afraid because I'm voting for peace in the country," said Arun Basnet, 51, one of the first two people casting ballots at the academy.

He said he was voting for a pro-king mayoral candidate and attributed the lack of voters at the start of polling to "confusion" about were to cast ballots.

But opposition leaders, Western diplomats and even some government officials have said they expected a low turnout because of rebel threats and a boycott by the major political parties, which call the elections a sham to legitimize King Gyanendra's seizure of absolute power last year.

The insurgents have threatened to kill anyone who takes part in the vote -- two candidates have already been slain -- prompting the government to take out life insurance policies worth up to Nepal rupees 700,000 ($10,300) for the more than 2,000 candidates.

The leading opposition parties plan to peacefully disrupt the vote, the first since 1999.

"We have instructed all our supporters and cadres to go the polling stations in their areas and do whatever they can to stop voting," Krishna Sitaula of the Nepali Congress said on Tuesday.

Gyanendra's government has responded by rounding up hundreds of politicians, activists and journalists.

Candidates have registered in less than half of the more than 4,000 races for mayors and local officials nationwide.

Among those brave enough to run is a gang leader vying for mayor in the eastern town of Bidur and a street sweeper contending for the top job in the central city of Pokhara.

Votes were taking place in only 36 towns and cities because in the country's remaining 22 municipalities there were no candidates or contenders ran unopposed, Home Minister Kamal Thapa said.

It remained unclear how many of the 1.5 million registered voters would actually get to the 1,040 polling stations after the government ordered all vehicles off the roads, fearing rebel attacks. But officials said tens of thousands of government workers were ordered to vote.

Thapa told reporters that soldiers and police have also "been instructed to use ultimate force if there are any attempts to disrupt the polls or harm the voters."

Despite stepped up security, rebels bombed several government buildings in an east Nepal town early on Wednesday.

A day earlier, rebels killed seven police officers and soldiers in two attacks, one just east of Katmandu, the other far to the southeast. A rebel also was killed.

The Maoists also have called a nationwide strike this week. The king seized power on February 1, 2005, claiming the move was necessary to defeat the Maoists, whose decade-long fight for a communist state has cost 12,000 lives.

But fighting has persisted in this Himalayan land of 27 million people, and the economy has only worsened -- per capita income is less than $25 a month.

The insurgency and the near-constant back-and-forth between the king and political parties "has made it very difficult for us have interest in this election," said shopkeeper Saroj Jyoti, aechoing a common sentiment in Kathmandu. "What changes?"