Seventeen-and-a-half million people are eligible to go to the polls in Nepal, Thursday. They will elect members of a constituent assembly that will draft a constitution to complete the transfer from a feudal Himalayan state into a modern democracy. From Kathmandu, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports the twice-delayed election is seen as a referendum on the country's monarchy, as well as on Nepal's Maoists who fought a decade-long civil war to topple the royals.
More than 50 parties are vying for the favor of Nepal's voters. But it is the two extremes of the Himalayan country's political spectrum on which much of the campaign has focused.
One of the candidates is Maoist Hisila Yami - serving in the Nepalese government as the cabinet minister in charge of public works.
"It's a referendum for Maoists, as well referendum for the monarchy," Yami said. "Because it's the Maoists who had given an ultimate challenge to monarchy. And, it is also a test for Maoists."
On the far right, former Information and Communications Minister Tanka Dhakal rejects the notion that the monarchy, which he supports, is facing a referendum in this election. Dhakal, a proportional representation candidate of the pro-monarchist RPP-Nepal party, says the balloting instead will gauge whether the public trusts the Maoists to participate in a democratic election .
"We want to establish democracy in Nepal or we want to establish the communist dictatorship in Nepal? This is the major question. I request them to transfer their [communist] ideology to the democratic line," he said.
The Maoists fought the state for a decade, in a violent confrontation that left 13,000 people dead. Their main goal was to end any vestiges of feudalism. And, that meant ridding the impoverished nation of the Shah Dynasty, which has ruled Nepal for two-and-a-half centuries.
The current monarch, already stripped of authority and privilege, is the unpopular King Gyanendra. In January, the interim parliament formally declared Nepal a secular republic. The royal moniker has since disappeared - no longer a prefix for the name of the army, the national airline and other state entities.
Gyanendra came to power seven years ago, when his nephew, who was crown prince, allegedly massacred much of the royal family, including Gyanendra's brother, King Birendra.
Gyanendra failed to crush the Maoist rebellion and his autocratic ways provoked widespread unrest. He was eventually forced to return authority to the government.
That led the Maoists to agree to a peace accord in late 2006, in which their fighters and weapons were put in camps under United Nations supervision. Since then, they have emerged as one of the top three political parties. The others are the Congress Party, which once supported the monarchy, and another Communist party (Unified Marxist-Leninist), seen as more moderate than the Maoists.
Public Works Minister Yami says, however the Maoists fare in the vote tabulation, they have already declared victory.
"Politically, we have won already," Yami said. "And, even in terms of sentiment, we have won already because these sentiments were evoked during the war. And, now it is the peoples' sentiment. Now, only technically we have to win through the vote."
Maoist leaders say they will accept the outcome of the nationwide balloting, if the election is deemed to have been conducted fairly.
Many critics, including international human rights organizations, accuse the Maoists of not playing fairly. They allege the Young Communist League and other groups under the Maoist banner have been instigators of much of the campaign violence. But the Maoists say they have suffered more than any other party, with 60 of their cadres and supporters being killed, some gunned down by police.
In the Thamel tourist district, hammer-and-sickle flags of the Maoist party flutter above many shops. Here, there is little sympathy for the monarchy.
Clothing store proprietor Sagar Adhikari says he believes, if the king does not give up his crown, there will be a resurgence of violent clashes in the streets of Kathmandu.
"Monarchy, I don't like," he said. "If he leaves it's better - better for Nepal, better for Nepali [people] and better for him also."
One of Adhikari's competitors down the road, Satidevi Khanal, agrees with him that restoring law and order is the utmost priority.
She says Nepal must be declared a republic and that the king's fate does not really matter. But she adds that her personal opinion is that he should abdicate.
In every interview, people do agree on one thing - that their biggest hope for the election is whatever the outcome, peace will come to Nepal.