February 6, 2006

Nepal vote credibility seen hit by boycott, threats

By Y.P. Rajesh

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Revolt-torn Nepal holds municipal
polls this week, the country's first elections in nearly seven
years, but a boycott by key political parties and rebel threats
are expected to rob the vote of credibility.

For King Gyanendra, who sacked the government and took
executive power one year ago, Wednesday's polls are an attempt
to signal that he is serious about restoring democracy and is
laying the ground for parliamentary elections by April 2007.

But the Himalayan kingdom's seven mainstream political
parties and Maoist rebels, fighting since 1996 to topple the
monarchy, see it as a move by the king to legitimize his rule
and sideline popular democratic groups.

"The seven-party alliance represents about 90-95 percent of
the old parliament," said a Kathmandu-based diplomat. "Their
boycotting the municipal polls puts a very big question mark
over whether these elections will be free, fair and credible."

The rebels have stepped up violence ahead of the vote,
killing two election hopefuls, shooting and wounding another
and setting off bombs in the houses and vehicles of candidates.

One policeman was killed and four others wounded on Monday
when their vehicle hit a land mine near Mahendranagar in west
Nepal, police said.

Security was stepped up in Kathmandu after soldiers late on
Sunday defused a bomb left by suspected Maoist rebels under a
bridge in an upmarket area, authorities said.

The violence came as a week-long nationwide general strike
called by the rebels entered its second day on Monday, closing
down transport services, businesses and educational
institutions and bringing life to a halt across the
impoverished country.

Fear of being targeted by the rebels has hurt participation
in the polls.

Of more than 4,100 posts at issue in 58 municipal councils
across the country, there are no candidates for more than
2,100. Nearly 650 candidates pulled out after filing their
papers and dozens have resigned after being elected unopposed.

The rest have been placed under tight security in army
barracks and safe houses, many against their will. Several have
gone underground and some have been sent on holidays and
pilgrimages across the southern border into India.


"The king hasn't done anything for the country and wants to
hold these elections now," said Comrade Chandrakant, a senior
regional Maoist commander.

"These elections are not an answer to the people's
problems. We have cautioned people against voting," he told

While voter turnout is expected to be insignificant, the
royalist government has made it mandatory for government
employees to cast their ballots in what is seen as an effort to
shore up the polling percentage.

Political parties say they suspect soldiers and policemen
will turn up in plain clothes and stamp ballots en masse.

"The king probably thought he could follow the example of
Afghanistan or Iraq or Kashmir where elections have been held
despite the threat of the gun," said Dhawal Shumshere JB Rana,
previous mayor of the western town of Nepalgunj.

"But this has turned out to be a fiasco. Nobody serious is
contesting. And those contesting are on the run," he said.

Last week, as Nepal marked the first anniversary of
Gyanendra's move to take absolute power, the monarch reminded
his countrymen that it was their duty to vote in the local

Only the very brave like Surya Bahadur Thapa seem to agree.

"I am a patriot and I have a responsibility to fulfil,"
said Thapa, a former soldier who is running for mayor in
Ghorahi in the western district of Dang, gateway to the Maoist

"I realize I have risked my life and the lives of my
family," he said, a day after soldiers defused a bomb Maoist
rebels placed in his house. "But we all have to die one day.
Until then I propose to work for my people."

(Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma)