Millions Turn Out in Nepal for Historic Vote

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By Matthew Rosenberg
Associated Press
Friday, April 11, 2008

KATHMANDU, Nepal, April 10 -- Nepalese embraced the country's return to democracy Thursday with millions voting in an election meant to secure lasting peace in a land riven by communist insurgents and an autocratic king.

Undeterred by shootings and clashes that killed two people, many voters lined up before sunrise outside polling stations across this Himalayan land. Some even broke into applause when voting began.

With the rebels out of the bush and contesting the vote and the monarch -- the world's last Hindu king -- likely to soon lose his throne, millions saw the country's first election in nine years as a moment too historic to miss.

"This is our chance to stop the bleeding," said Arpana Shrestha, a 47-year-old woman waiting to vote in Kathmandu. "Always there was blood in Nepal. Not anymore."

An estimated 60 percent of the 17.6 million voters cast ballots at 20,000 polling stations. But the violence -- including the slaying of an independent candidate -- has shown how hard it will be to forge true peace in this often ill-governed and violent country.

The election of a 601-seat Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution has been touted as the cornerstone of a 2006 peace deal with former rebels, known as the Maoists. That deal was reached after weeks of unrest that forced Nepal's king to cede power, which he had seized the year before.

In the two years since, Nepal has seen an armed uprising by ethnic minority groups -- unrest that twice delayed the vote.

The election campaign was marked by clashes between supporters of rival parties and small bombings. In the two days before the vote, eight people were killed.

Thursday's death toll was lower than most had feared, but still marred a day that held great symbolic value for many in the impoverished nation, where 60 percent of the 29 million people are younger than 35.

"We are getting our rights and these people have to kill. It's not good," said Gopal Acharya, 22, a student and first-time voter.

In southeastern Nepal, assailants fatally shot an independent candidate outside a polling station. Elsewhere, motorcycle-riding gunmen unsuccessfully tried to kill another contender.

Also in southern Nepal, a supporter of the Nepali Congress party died of wounds sustained in a clash with supporters of a minority ethnic group, the Madeshis.

Authorities were forced to postpone balloting until a later date at 33 polling places, said Chief Election Commissioner Bhoj Raj Pokhrel. They included a few stations in the eastern Ramechap district, where Maoists blocked representatives of other parties from observing the vote, said Home Ministry spokesman Ekmani Nepal.

Maoists also set fire to one polling station. Police said they arrested 15 men, seizing three grenades and a knife.

Maoist officials in Kathmandu said they were trying to verify the reports. Their leader hailed the election, saying: "We believe this will take Nepal to a new era."


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