Nepal votes in first local election in 20 years

A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Thimi, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, on Sunday (May 14). PHOTO: AFP

KATHMANDU (AFP) - Voting began in Nepal on Sunday (May 14) in its first local elections in two decades, a landmark moment in the country's fraught transition to democracy.

Polls opened in three provinces at 7am (9.15am Singapore time) with nearly 50,000 candidates vying for the position of mayor, deputy mayor, ward chairman and ward member in 283 local municipalities.

The ballot paper in the capital Kathmandu - one of the largest constituencies - was around 1m long to accommodate the 878 candidates.

"It is difficult to expect much from our politicians - they have always been selfish and not worked for the people - but I hope that with this election things will change," housewife Shova Maharjan, 41, told AFP after casting her vote in the capital.

A bomb was found early Sunday morning outside the house of a mayoral candidate for the main opposition CPN-UML party in Bhaktapur, 15km east of Kathmandu.

"A team has already disposed of it and no one was injured," senior local police officer Shyam Oliya told AFP.

The vote has been split into two phases because of unrest in the southern plains bordering India, where the minority Madhesi ethnic group is refusing to participate until an amendment to the constitution is passed.

The remaining four provinces, considered potential flashpoints for election-related violence, will vote in the second phase due to be held on June 14.

Around 231,000 security personnel have been deployed for the two phases of the election, including 75,000 temporary police officers hired to boost manpower, according to the home ministry.

Drawn-out peace process

Local government representatives were last elected in 1997. Their five-year terms expired in 2002, at the height of the country's civil war, and their mandate was allowed to lapse.

Bureaucrats have since filled those positions, many appointed on the basis of allegiance to the main political parties.

Corruption has flourished, hampering the delivery of basic services - from healthcare to the appointment of teachers at government schools.

The peace deal that ended the decade-long Maoist insurgency in 2006 began the impoverished Himalayan nation's transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular republic.

As part of the accord, a new constitution was written and finally adopted in September 2015, nearly a decade after the end of the conflict.

The charter mandated that local elections, followed by provincial and then national elections, be held by January 2018 - the final step in the drawn-out peace process.

But the constitution sparked protests by the minority Madhesi community - who say the document leaves them politically marginalised - and led to a months-long blockade of the India-Nepal border that caused a crippling shortage of goods across the country.

The Madhesi community threatened to boycott the local polls unless the constitution is rewritten and forced the government to split the vote into two phases.

The government has promised a vote on an amendment to the constitution after Sunday's election, but the fragile ruling coalition is struggling to get the necessary majority in parliament to pass the bill.

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