Nepal polls marred by Maoist violence and low turnout

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The Independent Online

Turnout was low across the country yesterday - just over 20 per cent - amid calls by the seven main political parties for a boycott, and threats from Maoist rebels to target anyone taking part.

Voting had to be postponed or cancelled in more than half of the seats on offer because no one dared to stand as a candidate in the face of the threats.

Lone candidates stood in hundreds of other seats, finding themselves elected unopposed. More than 600 of those who originally filed as candidates withdrew before election day.

Most of the remaining candidates had been rounded up by police and forced to stay inside heavily guarded compounds for their own protection - many against their will. Others were said to have left for neighbouring India on "pilgrimages", in order to be out of reach of the Maoists.

Although the elections were only for mayors and local councils, they had become the battleground for the struggle between the King and the alliance of the country's seven main political parties, who demand he gives up the autocratic powers he seized a year ago and restore democracy.

Politicians said yesterday's elections were a fig leaf for King Gyanendra's autocratic rule and refused to take part, calling for a national boycott. They won the support of the European Union, which released a statement saying the elections were a backward step from democracy.

It was not clear whether the low turnout was in response to the boycott calls or out of fear of the Maoists' threats. But what was not in doubt was that the low turnout was a severe blow to the King.

He has been facing daily street protests against his rule, in which demonstrators have increasingly called for him to leave the country and - in a big change in attitude for the majority of Nepalis - for the monarchy to be abolished.

Security forces were under orders to "shoot to kill" anyone trying to disrupt the elections, and in the south-western district of Dang, they did. The army said "soldiers were compelled to open fire" on 150 protesters who were trying to prevent people voting. One person was killed and another was injured.

Communications to the area were cut off last night and it was impossible to verify the army's version of events. King Gyanendra has repeatedly cut telephone, mobile and internet lines whenever his regime has been threatened.

There was more election- day violence elsewhere in the country as the Maoists launched a major assault on the town of Dhankuta just hours before the polls opened. They killed one civilian and one police officer, and took seven government officials and three police hostage. The guerrillas bombed government buildings and destroyed the local bank. Two Maoists were also killed.

Last night, the Maoists ended a week-long strike they had called to protest against the election, saying it had been successful in disrupting the vote. The parties held talks with the rebels and supported the strike, in which no cars were allowed on the roads and no shops were allowed to open. It paralysed the country and hit the vital tourism sector.

King Gyanendra did away with the vestiges of democracy in Nepal a year ago, when he sacked the entire government and seized back the absolute powers of a medieval king, claiming it was necessary to defeat the Maoists. He suspended basic human rights, including freedom of speech.

But he has failed to make any headway against the Maoists militarily and opposition to his rule has been growing. At least 13,000 people have died in the 10-year civil war with the Maoists.