Tens of thousands of Nepalese in mountain villages and towns cast votes Sunday in a landmark election hoping to usher in political stability that has eluded the country since it began its rocky transition to democracy a decade ago.
It is the first election after the tiny Himalayan country adopted a new federal republic constitution following the abolition of the monarchy in 2008. Besides picking lawmakers for a national parliament, voters will choose provincial assemblies for the first time.
Polling was brisk — more than three million people were eligible to vote in the first phase of the two-stage polls. Security was stepped up after a series of small blasts blamed on a Maoist splinter group targeted political candidates in the final days of the campaign.
There are two main alliances in the fray — a leftist coalition between the Maoist Party and the communist CNP-UML, and a centrist one led by the Nepali Congress.
After a decade beset with instability in which the government changed hands through nine prime ministers, and fractious political parties bickered over the constitution, most Nepalese hope that the elections deliver a clear verdict.
“What we are still hoping for after all this hopelessness is that one strong party will come who will be the ruling party for the next five years,” says Anand Joshi, a businessman in the capital Kathmandu.
He is among the tens of thousands who are deeply disappointed that the advent of democracy brought little benefit to the country since a violent civil war ended in 2006 and pro democracy protests led to the abolition of monarchy.
Instead, political infighting put development on the backburner as short-lived governments failed to deliver what people in one of the world’s poorest countries want – jobs, roads, schools and hospitals.
“I am not going to vote. I have no confidence in this whole roundabout of all these politicians,” says Joshi.
Many are hoping that the provincial assemblies being created for the first time will usher in change by giving local governments a greater voice in development. Seven states, that have still to be named, have been carved out. But this is uncharted territory points out Nischal Nath Pandey, Director at Kathmandu’s Center for South Asian Studies.
“We've never experimented on federalism before, we were always a centralized country. How this is to be managed by the political elite that has not yet known how to transfer power to local bodies has yet to be seen,” according to Pandey.
Nepalese citizens are not the only ones waiting for the election outcome. The election is also being closely watched by India and China, neighbors that are vying for influence in the strategic Himalayan country that lies sandwiched between them. While the Nepali Congress is closer to New Delhi, which has traditionally held sway in Nepal, the leaders of the left parties are keen to build closer ties with Beijing, which has gained in influence in recent years.
The next round of voting will be on December 7th. The counting could take several days.