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Turnout low in Nepal's municipal election

Turnout was thin in the first few hours of polling amid a strike called by Maoists, who threatened anyone taking part in the polls.

india Updated: Feb 08, 2006 17:19 IST

Voters in Nepal cast their ballots under threats of violence on Wednesday in controversial elections that the king promised would be the first step back to democracy in the troubled Himalayan nation.

Turnout was thin in the first hours of polling amid a general strike called by Maoist rebels, who threatened anyone taking part in Nepal's first national election since 1999.

Newspapers reported that security agencies had been given the green light to shoot people disrupting the local elections.

King Gyanendra called the election as part of a "road map to democracy" after he sacked the government and seized absolute power a year ago, promising to quell the 10-year-old rebel insurgency that has claimed 12,500 lives.

But many of his opponents have derided the plan as a sham and insisted that the elections were a bid to try to legitimise the king's February 2005 power grab.

In Kathmandu's historic Durbar Square, voting booths were open but people casting ballots were few and far between.

"I came here because it's a good thing for democracy," said the first person to vote at the site, Makahan Gal, who arrived with her husband as polls opened. Only a trickle of voters was seen throughout the morning.

In other towns voter turnout was also low, according to local journalists and residents reached by telephone.

In Mahendranagar in far west Nepal, turnout was negligible after a series of blasts shook the main bazaar before polling began, a local journalist said.

"Three explosions were heard around the bazaar, there were no casualties and it was just to scare people," the journalist said, asking not to be named.

The rebels joined with opposition parties to call for a boycott of the vote and Maoist rebel leader Prachanda, whose call for a week-long general strike from Sunday has seen Nepal grind to a near halt, urged people to stay away.

"Our party would like to make a final and special appeal to the general public ... to boycott the municipal polls and take the movement for democracy and peace to a new height," Prachanda said in a statement.

The struggle to topple the monarchy would continue and intensify after the polls, he said.

Prachanda, whose Maoist movement has waged a deadly 10-year battle to topple the monarchy, said he was willing to hold talks with the king if Gyanendra conceded that his army-backed coup was "wrong."

"Let us sit across the table, and then (if) he talks of a free and fair election to a constitutional assembly, then we will be ready to take part," said Prachanda.

More than half the 4,146 seats have no candidates, and people have been appointed in 22 of Nepal's 58 municipalities ahead of voting because of a lack of candidates. Wednesday's polling was taking place in only 36 municipalities.

The Maoist rebels are believed to have killed two candidates, thrown bombs at others and killed a strike-breaking taxi driver in an effort to reinforce their anti-poll message.

Home Minister Kamal Thapa urged the almost two million people on the electoral register to come out to vote.

"The government has completed all the procedures and enough security arrangements have been made to conduct the elections in a peaceful and fair manner," he told journalists on Tuesday.

In Biratnagar, a main town in eastern Nepal, there were few voters and streets were empty, said a local coordinator from the Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), a human rights group.

Police in the town later arrested a dozen demonstrators who were urging residents not to vote, a local journalist said. The demonstrators were bundled into a police van and driven away.

First Published: Feb 08, 2006 17:16 IST