Maoist intimidation of candidates puts Nepal poll in doubt

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A candidate in the municipal elections that have become a battleground for Nepal's future was critically injured by suspected Maoist rebels yesterday. Dal Bahadur Rai was in his house in the capital Kathmandu when gunmen broke in and shot him.

The elections, due to be held on 8 February, were intended to be a showpiece for King Gyanendra's claims that he intended to restore democracy to the long-suffering Himalayan nation. They are fast turning into a public relations disaster.

More than 600 candidates withdrew over the weekend, many of them fearing for their lives after the Maoists threatened "severe action" against anyone who took part - in effect a threat to kill them. But others have come forward to say they were blackmailed, or forced into standing by the authorities. And some have even said their names were registered as candidates by the authorities without their knowledge.

In one case, a housewife discovered to her astonishment that her name had been entered as a candidate in Kathmandu. Dhan Kumar Neupane's husband said authorities at first refused to let her withdraw, and it was not until he staged a protest outside the local election office that they backed down.

The number of candidates withdrawing means that more than 1,000 of the 4,146 seats in the elections will be uncontested. The Maoists have given candidates a deadline to withdraw, but there is some confusion over whether it expires today or tomorrow.

Although they are only elections for local authorities, the polls have assumed considerable significance for Nepal's future.

They are being held against a backdrop of daily street protests against King Gyanendra. Demonstrators are calling for the monarchy to be abolished and replaced with a republic.

In one provincial town, more than 150,000 people marched against the King, and his government resorted to brutal methods to contain the protests. Hundreds of political activists have been arrested and last week police opened fire on protesters with live ammunition.

Nepal's seven major political parties are refusing to take part in the elections and are calling on voters to boycott the polls, saying they are a fig leaf for King Gyanendra's autocratic rule and will not lead to a restoration of democracy.

In another blow to King Gyanendra, the European Union last week came out on the side of the parties and said the elections would be a backward step from democracy. The EU also condemned the government's repressive measures against protesters.

The elections come as the civil war with the Maoists, in which at least 12,000 people have been killed over the past 10 years, reignited after the Maoists renounced a unilateral ceasefire.

The fact that the Maoists were able to strike inside the capital, and carry out their threat to target candidates even in the most secure city in Nepal, shows how extensive is their reach.

The King sacked the entire government last year and seized back the absolute powers of a medieval king, suspending basic human rights in Nepal.

But the protests against him began after the leaders of the seven parties held face-to-face talks with the Maoist leader Prachanda, and persuaded the Maoists to sign up to a 12-point framework for peace talks.

The seven parties now say that they can deliver a peace deal with the Maoists. King Gyanendra refuses to talk with the rebels and insists that a military victory is possible.