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Nepal Braces for Controversial Election


Nepalese officials say they will push ahead with controversial local elections Wednesday, despite a boycott by mainstream political parties and the threat of violence by communist rebels. The elections are the first step outlined by King Gyanendra for the restoration of democratic rights in Nepal, which he suspended a year ago.

King Gyanendra says the people of Nepal are determined to hold successful elections Wednesday and will exercise their right to vote.

But not everyone agrees. Many in Nepal expect voter turnout to be light, because most political parties are boycotting the election, and because of the threat of violence by communist rebels intent on stopping the voting.

The king ordered the municipal elections as the preliminary step before parliamentary elections next year. Both are part of his plan to restore democratic freedoms, which he suspended last year.

The king has held nearly absolute power since he dismissed parliament a year ago and arrested scores of political opponents. He said he had to act because Nepal's constantly feuding political parties had failed to organize elections and had not stopped the communist insurgency.

King Gyanendra is determined to hold the election, despite the boycott and his failure to halt the insurgency.

Rhoderic Chalmers is with the International Crisis Group, an independent research organization. He says those failings make it critical, in the eyes of the government, for the election to go ahead.

"When he took power in February 2005, he promised that he would put democracy back on track by carrying out elections. So for the king and his government this is a matter of prestige," he said. "And it appears they are tied so closely to the idea of forcing elections through at any cost."

"And in fact one of the king's advisers recently said, no matter how many lives are lost, they will go ahead," continued Chalmers. "It seems there is no space for the king to back down."

According to the election commission, there are roughly 4,100 seats for mayors and municipal council members across Nepal, but there are no candidates for more than half the positions.

Nepal's mainstream political parties have formed a loose alliance with the insurgents to push for the return of civil liberties and the holding of Constituent Assembly elections.

Senate Shresta is a former minister in the government the king formed last year. He acknowledges that security could be improved, but says that is no reason to discredit the elections entirely.

"In Afghanistan also, that also did not have a normal situation. But elections did go ahead. In Iraq also - that did not have a normal situation. Also in Iraq … bombs are blowing up everywhere, everyday. So, here also, this is a first step. In this first step, naturally these disturbances or these troubles will come," noted Shresta.

Security is expected to be high at polling stations. Rebels killed at least seven security officers Tuesday.

The rebels have called a nationwide strike this week, as part of their efforts to block the voting. Many businesses have been shuttered and drivers have stayed off the roads afraid of retaliation by the rebels. But many in the capital Kathmandu have chosen to ignore the boycott.

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