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Threats, boycott as disillusioned Nepal heads to polls


Millions of Nepalis will brave threats of violence and head to the polls Tuesday, hoping a second election since the end of their civil war will end years of deadlock and disillusionment with politics.

Voters in the impoverished Himalayan nation flocked to the ballot box in 2008 after a peace deal was struck to end 10 years of fighting and replace royal rule with a new secular republic.

Five years later, a string of coalition governments have failed to deliver a long-promised draft constitution and the Maoist party, who swept the 2008 polls, has splintered.

"I don't think our politicians will agree on the constitution. Like before, my hunch is that they will waste time by quarrelling over petty issues," Bishal Lamichhane, an 18-year-old first-time voter, told AFP in Kathmandu.

Amid the bickering, Nepal's economy has slowed, with annual GDP growth tumbling from 6.1 percent in 2008 to 4.6 percent last year, according to World Bank data.

The tourism industry in the home of Mount Everest, a key earner of foreign currency, has reeled under frequent strikes called by political parties.

Some see ominous signs of a return to violence after a hardline Maoist faction broke away from the party to form the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) and called for a boycott of the polls.

Protesters linked to an alliance led by the CPN-M have torched candidates' vehicles and seized ballot papers, fuelling worries that some citizens will be too intimidated to cast their votes.

CPN-M argues that elections for the constituent assembly cannot be carried out now under an interim administration headed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and insists polls be postponed until a cross-party government is put in place.

Authorities have deployed 50,000 soldiers and instructed 140,000 police personnel to guard polling stations.

"Keeping them (CPN-M) out of the electoral process can lead to a situation where they would not feel part of the political process after the polls," political commentator Bishnu Sapkota told AFP.

"This will be a major challenge for the completion of the peace process and writing the constitution," he added.

Although more than 100 parties have fielded candidates, the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) party, the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Maoists are expected to be the biggest parties.

Preliminary results are expected within a week but the manual vote count will not be completed until the end of November, according to the Election Commission.

Analysts say no party is likely to emerge with the two-thirds majority required to approve a constitution, leading to further paralysis.

"There was a lot of excitement in 2008 because the country was emerging from the civil war," Akhilesh Upadhyay, editor-in-chief of The Kathmandu Post, told AFP.

"This time around, there's less enthusiasm and more disenchantment."

An estimated 16,000 people died in a 10-year war civil war in which Maoist rebels fought against the state, which was then under a monarchy that ruled Nepal for 240 years.

Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by the nom-de-guerre Prachanda, headed the first post-war government but his stint in power ended after nine months following a clash with the army.

Since then, he has come under fire for his lavish lifestyle and alleged corruption.

Nearly 25 percent of the country's population survives on less than $1.25 a day, the World Bank says.

The constituent assembly elected in 2008 was dissolved in May 2012 after lawmakers failed to agree on a federal model for the country.

The Maoists wanted states to be carved out along lines that could potentially favour historically marginalised communities such as the untouchable Dalit caste and the indigenous Janajati people.

Other parties have attacked this model, calling it too divisive.

The assembly are also at loggerheads over the adoption of a presidential or parliamentary government, with the Maoists pushing for a directly elected president, which opposing parties say could lead to authoritarian rule.

Nepal's 12.2 million voters will have the choice of 6,128 candidates standing for 240 directly elected seats in the 601-member assembly, which will also serve as a parliament.

Another 335 seats will be awarded via a proportional representation system and the remaining 26 members will be chosen by a council of ministers.

Nepal's neighbours, India and China, who keep a close eye on the country, have provided logistical support, with Beijing sending poll-related goods worth 160 million rupees ($1.6 million) and New Delhi providing more than 700 vehicles.