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After Turbulent Change to Democracy, Nepal Hopes Elections Will Bring Political Stability


FILE - Nepalese stand in line to vote at a polling station in Bhaktapur, Nepal, May 14, 2017. Nepalese lined up to vote for representatives in municipality and village council positions held in the Himalayan nation for the first time in two decades.

A landmark election that begins Sunday in Nepal is set to complete the Himalayan country's turbulent journey to democracy following the abolition of the monarchy 10 years ago.

The two-phase election is the first being held after a new constitution, adopted in 2015, turned the country into a federal republic. Polling will take place to choose a new parliament and legislatures for newly carved out states.

In a country weary of short-lived governments, the mood is swinging between hope that change may be at hand and disillusionment at the fractious politics of the last decade. It took bickering political parties nearly eight years to hammer out a constitution after the monarchy was abolished.

"There is hope that this election will institutionalize democracy and bring political stability because we have had nine prime ministers in the last 10 years," according to the director for the Center for South Asian Studies in Kathmandu, Nishchal Nath Pandey. "People hope that finally these elections will give a majority to a single political force so that the government can survive for five years."

FILE - Supporters of Nepali Congress Party march during an election campaign event in Bhaktapur, Nepal, May 11, 2017.
FILE - Supporters of Nepali Congress Party march during an election campaign event in Bhaktapur, Nepal, May 11, 2017.

The optimism stems from the fact that in place of scores of political parties going it on their own, two dominant alliances have emerged to contest the elections — one led by leftist parties and the other by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's centrist Nepali Congress party.

In a colorful campaign, candidates are wooing voters in every possible way — rallies have been in full swing and campaign promises have been beamed via social media and on radio to reach voters in remote villages along mountain slopes.

Those messages have been received with some skepticism.

"Lot of promises have been made by the parties, but people are not so optimistic about the fulfillment of these promises. People want small things, local roads, hospitals, education, food, employment, drinking water. Even today they are not so hopeful," said Lokraj Baral, the head of the Nepal Center for Contemporary Studies in Kathmandu.

The reason: The end of a violent civil war in 2006 and the abolition of the monarchy had raised hopes of people-centered development, but that has not happened.

Instead, the political drift of the last decade virtually brought the country to a standstill. The development agenda is stalled as economic growth last year was negative in Nepal, one of the world's poorest countries. More than two years after a devastating earthquake shattered the country, thousands of people still live in temporary shelters.

Vijay Thapa, 34, from Nepal spends the better part of the year in New Delhi, India, away from his family working as a domestic because there are no job opportunities in his village.

"I want roads in my village; food should be cheaper for poor people," Thapa said. But he has few hopes. "They have done nothing. They only work for their own benefit," he said.

Skepticism, violence

Many of the political leaders contesting the elections have been around in Nepali politics for decades and are popularly perceived as having failed to deliver.

"All these are old and tired leaders. But there is also pressure from within these political parties, specially the youth, a clamoring for change," Pandey said.

About 15 million voters will be eligible to choose the 275-member parliament. They will simultaneously choose state governments for the first time as the country brings in a federal structure.

The new constitution has divided the country into seven states, which still have to be named.

FILE - Nepalese Army's bomb disposal team detonate explosives during the local election in Bhaktapur, Nepal, May 14, 2017. Two explosive devices were planted across from a candidate's house. No one was injured.
FILE - Nepalese Army's bomb disposal team detonate explosives during the local election in Bhaktapur, Nepal, May 14, 2017. Two explosive devices were planted across from a candidate's house. No one was injured.

Even that process has not been smooth. Dozens of people were killed in ethnic clashes after the states were carved out with the ethnic Madhesi community saying it did not get enough territory. Although they have agreed to take part in the elections, there are fears of violence and security has been stepped up.

Political analysts say the alliance between the main group of Maoist former rebels and the opposition Communist UML party is widely expected to emerge as the winner.

The elections and its aftermath will also test Nepal's new constitution.

"Let us see how far this constitution will be stable, and how far this constitution will be able to give political stability, good governance and development," Baral said.

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