CHAUTARA, Nepal: Millions of Nepalis headed to the polls Sunday for a historic election billed as a turning point for the impoverished Himalayan nation, hoping to end the ruinous instability that has plagued the country since the end of a bloody civil war a decade ago.
The two-phase elections for national and provincial parliaments are the first under a new post-war constitution born out of a peace deal that ended the 10-year Maoist insurgency in 2006 and set the country on a path from monarchy to democracy.
It took nine years after the end of the conflict for the new charter to be agreed as a series of brittle coalition governments bickered over the country’s future as a federal democratic state.
Many hope that the elections, which will establish the country’s first provincial assemblies, will bring an end to political turbulence and limit the impact of the horse-trading in Kathmandu on much needed development in the rest of the country.
Lines outside polling stations started to form early in Chautara, a town east of Kathmandu, as voters, wrapped up warm against the brisk mountain air, gathered to cast their ballots.
“Because the government changes every nine months, development work has not been able to continue. Our wish is for a stable government,” said Santosh Kumar Shrestha, who had returned home to Chautara to vote.
Around 3.2 million people across the north of the country, including areas badly hit by a devastating earthquake two years ago, are eligible to vote in Sunday’s first phase. The more populous south will vote in 10 days time.
Many voters from remote villages nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas had to walk for hours to reach their nearest polling station, with some making the long journey the day before.
In western Baitadi district, a 114-year-old woman made the journey to cast her vote, said local official Deepak Kumar Acharya.
Meanwhile, the ballot boxes at a polling station in Humla, one of the country’s least developed districts, were still empty late morning.
“People are yet to arrive to cast their vote due to the extreme cold,” district chief Laxmi Prasad Baskota told AFP.
Three dominant parties
Nepal’s new constitution, finally passed in 2015, lays out a sweeping overhaul of the political system and aims to devolve power away from the central government to seven newly created provinces.
Rules laid out in the new charter will weed out some fringe parties from the parliaments and raises the bar for ousting a prime minister, leading to hopes that the next government could be the first to last a full five year term.
Nepal has cycled through 10 leaders in the last 11 years and corruption has flourished, hampering growth as well as the recovery from the 2015 earthquake that destroyed half a million homes.
However, analysts warn that the impact of the changes could be limited, with the three parties that have dominated the political stage since the end of the conflict expected to take the lion’s share of seats.
That sentiment was echoed by some voters.
“I don’t think things will change much. It is the same people and same parties and they will continue to do as they used to,” said 26-year-old Smita Shrestha after casting her ballot.
The Maoist Party of the former rebels has formed an electoral alliance with the communist CNP-UML, fielding candidates jointly in key races.
The powerful bloc has left the ruling party, the centrist Nepali Congress, on the back foot, forced to look to smaller parties in a bid to remain in power.
The Maoist insurgency and the drawn-out peace process that followed it were intended to create a more equal society. But the political instability and endemic corruption have undermined that goal.
Under the new constitution a proportion of seats in the federal and provincial assemblies are allocated to women and people from indigenous communities and the lowest Dalit caste.
Nepal’s borders with India and China were closed ahead of the vote and thousands of security forces have been deployed at polling stations.
There has been sporadic violence in the lead up to the polls mostly blamed on a splinter faction of the Maoist Party, which has left dozens injured.
Results are expected a few days after the second vote on December 7.