Nepal votes in first parliamentary election since 1999

The vote in Nepal is the first of its kind since the Himalayan nation became a federal republic in 2008.

On Sunday, the first day of a two-day election phase, voters in the nation’s northern region were casting their ballots for national and provincial assemblies, with many hoping the results would usher in political stability and bring closure to the country’s decade-long post-civil war transition.

Read more: Nepal holds first local election in 20 years

Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time (0115 UTC), remaining open until 5 p.m. local time. The second phase of voting in the southern regions and the capital, Kathmandu, was scheduled for December 7, after which all votes are to be counted. Results are expected in the days following the second phase. 

Over both dates, some 15.4 million eligible voters will select representatives for 275 seats in the federal parliament and 550 seats in seven provincial assemblies.

The parliamentary vote is also the first under Nepal’s new constitution, which was implemented in 2015. Nepalese cast ballots in 2008 and 2013 for constitutional assemblies, but these were largely focused on implementing the new constitution.

Men unload election materials from a truck ahead of the vote in Nepal (Reuters/N. Chitrakar)

Election commission officials unload voting materials in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote

Long-awaited political stability?

The last parliamentary elections were held 18 years ago amid a 10-year-long civil war between the ruling monarchical government and Maoist rebels. The war ended in 2006 but short-lived government formations persisted. Many Nepalese and international observers have expressed hope that Sunday’s vote will finally usher in the political and economic stability that has eluded Nepal.

The major political players in Sunday’s election include the ruling Nepali Congress, an economically liberal centrist party, and a communist alliance of the Maoist Center party and the Unified Marxist-Leninist Party (UML), currently the largest opposition party. A close outcome has been predicted.

Some analysts believe that the communist alliance will make it difficult for parties to attain parliamentary majorities. Nepal’s communist alliances have also struggled with shifting alliances and political infighting over the past years.

The leader of the Maoist Center party, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, previously aligned himself with the Nepali Congress party in 2016 in order to become prime minister. He stepped down from office earlier this year as part of a prearranged deal. Despite the election alliance with the UML, his Maoist party is currently the junior coalition partner of the ruling Nepali Congress. 

Nepal Pushpa Kamal Dahal steps down fom office (Reuters/N. Chitrakar)

Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known as “Prachanda” (“the fierce one”), stepped down from office as planned in May 2017

Violence at the campaign’s end

However, the final days of campaigning were marked by violence against political candidates as an alliance of left-wing Marxist parties was threatened by split-off communist groups.

Violent attacks during the political campaign further testified to political instability within the political left.

On Monday police arrested four members of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), a radical breakaway group of the Maoist Center party, in connection with a bomb at an election rally. Various members of the UML party have also been targeted by explosions over the past weeks.

Hundreds of thousands of security officers have been deployed to guard polling stations.

Nepalis march in an election campaign (Getty Images/AFP/P. Mathema)

Election campaigns were marred by bomb attacks. Above, a communist alliance candidate and his supporters make their way through Kathmandu’s streets

Turning towards China or India?

The outcome of Nepal’s elections could affect the country’s foreign policy significantly. Tucked between China and India, Nepal has seen both of its neighbors pushing to invest in the mountainous country.

The current government under the Nepali Congress is considered to be pro-India, whereas the UML favors Chinese investment. The communist party has announced that should it take power, it would hand a hydroelectric project worth $2.5 billion (€2.1 billion) back to China — a project the Nepali Congress had canceled.

Read more: India pledges millions in aid to rebuild Nepal, mend ties between the countries

The Madhesi minority

The outcome could also influence the domestic situation of the ethnic minority Madhesis, a diverse group of people who live in Nepal’s southern lowland region. They would like a stronger voice within the political system, which they feel discriminates against them. Seven Madhesi parties are campaigning as a political bloc. 

The Nepali Congress has promised to amend the constitution to further include Madhesis, if the party wins the vote to remain in power.

A woman walks in front off Nepal campaign posters on a building wall (Reuters/N. Chitrakar)

Nepal is hoping for stability and economic growth after decades of political turmoil and a devastating earthquake

Other key election campaign issues include economic development, job creation, and investment in education, infrastructure and health care.

Over the past 27 years, Nepal has had 25 governments, none of which have completed a full term since the country’s restoration of a multiparty system in 1990. The country signed a peace treaty in 2006, ending its 10-year-long civil war that killed more than 19,000 people.

Additionally, in 2015, Nepal was hit by a devastating earthquake that killed over 9,000 people.

(EFE, dpa, Reuters)