Nepal bans cars and drink to counter poll corruption

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LESS THAN 50 years ago it was an absolute monarchy, closed to the world. Today it is the world's highest democracy, and struggling to produce a government with a solid mandate.

Yesterday voters went to the polls in the first phase of Nepal's general election, amid tight security and an unprecedented effort to ensure that polling was fair.

The last such election five years ago produced a parliament finely balanced between the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) and the Nepali Congress. This parliament in turn produced six different governments without hitting on one that really worked. This year's election has been called six months ahead of the deadline.

Multi-party democracy was restored in this kingdom of 13 million people, 5.8 million of whom may vote, only nine years ago, and the authorities are doing their best to make sure it remains.

Yesterday all traffic was banned in Kathmandu, to prevent people speeding from one polling station to another and filling out ballots under different names. Free of the fumes that normally make walking in the city an eye- watering experience, Kathmandu regained its charm. Foreign tourists were heard to declare that they wished there was an election every day.

Other precautions included the closing of the normally porous Indo-Nepali border, to discourage the importation of Indian thugs for intimidation purposes. Sale and consumption of liquor was banned for three days to prevent rowdy behaviour and lawlessness, but more particularly to guard against the bribing of voters with alcohol to vote early and often.

After polling closed, the Election Commission said that the polling had been "held in generally peaceful atmosphere, except for some sporadic incidents". Three people died when activists clashed in one constituency, and incidents in 28 polling stations caused voting to be suspended. Five districts will vote again.

But the large-scale violence by the "Maoist" United People's Front that had been predicted failed to materialise. The Front had vowed to prevent the elections taking place, and the threat was taken seriously because of its strength in the west of the country. Their success in deterring voters from polling is not yet clear, though at 55 to 60 per cent voter turnout was rather smaller than that of five years ago.

The Maoists evolution from a regular political party into a terror organisation demonstrates the fragility of Nepali democracy. In 1991 they were among 20 parties contesting the general election, and received 4.83 per cent of the vote. But in 1994 the Election Commission barred them from putting up candidates, as their manifesto made clear their goal of overthrowing both the monarchy and parliamentary democracy, following the example of their role models in Peru's Senderosa Luminosa.

As a result they turned to violence. More than 800 people have died since they began their insurgency in February 1996.

The other Marxists in contention are the far larger Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Lenninist), who despite their ideological name are fully reconciled to Nepal's existing institutions. Or so they say. But the party's leader, former prime minister Manmohan Adhikary, died on 26 April at 78, robbing the party of its most plausible moderate.

The CPN's rival, which won 83 seats in 1994 to the CPN's 88, is the Nepali Congress. Like its namesake in India, it is a broad and loudly bickering church. Nepal's biggest fear is that parliament will be split just as evenly this time as it was five years ago.

But whether this is the case will not be known for several weeks, as more than half of the constituencies in the country will go the polls on 17 May.