POLICEMAN
Aijaz Rahi  /  AP
A Nepalese riot policeman walks past ballot boxes inside the district election commission office on Tuesday in Katmandu, Nepal.
updated 2/7/2006 11:45:08 PM ET 2006-02-08T04:45:08

Faced with opposition and rebel threats to disrupt municipal elections on Wednesday, Nepal’s government ordered security forces to shoot anyone who tries to interfere with the vote for mayors and local officials.

As polls opened for Nepal’s first vote in seven years, heavily guarded polling stations in the capital were nearly empty. The elections were intended to quell the long-running power struggle among the monarchy, political parties and Maoist rebels. Instead, they appear to have exacerbated it.

“I’m not afraid because I’m voting for peace in the country,” said Arun Basnet, one of the first two voters at a polling station at the Royal Nepal Academy in a densely populated area of central Katmandu. He said he was voting for the pro-king mayoral candidate.

The insurgents have threatened to kill anyone who takes part in the vote — two candidates have already been slain — prompting the government to take out life insurance policies worth up to $10,300 for the more than 2,000 candidates.

‘Ultimate force’
Nepal’s royal government ordered soldiers and police to shoot anyone trying to interfere with the elections after Maoist rebels killed seven police officers and soldiers in two attacks. A rebel was also killed.

They have “been instructed to use ultimate force if there are any attempts to disrupt the polls or harm the voters,” said Home Minister Kamal Thapa. In the capital, soldiers patrolled on foot and in armored vehicles.

A year ago, King Gyanendra dismissed the elected interim government and declared a state of emergency, saying only he could end corruption and quell the Maoist insurgency that has killed 12,000 in nearly a decade in the Himalayan kingdom of 27 million people.

Inching back to democracy
The municipal elections are billed as a small but significant step back toward democracy, but nearly all the major political parties are boycotting, calling it a sham intended to legitimize King Gyanendra’s rule. Seven of the opposition parties are working with rebels to foil the elections.

“We have instructed all our supporters and cadres to go the polling stations in their areas and do whatever they can to stop voting,” said Krishna Sitaula of the Nepali Congress party.

Gyanendra’s government has responded by rounding up hundreds of politicians, activists and journalists.

Hours before the elections were to begin, rebels bombed several government buildings in Dhankuta, about 250 miles east of Kathmandu, and set the local education office and bank on fire, the chief government official in the area, Sambhu Ghimire, said.

Candidates intimidated
Because of rebel threats, opposition boycott and government intimidation, candidates have registered in less than half of the more than 4,000 races for mayors and local officials.

Those brave enough to run include a gang leader vying for mayor in the eastern town of Bidur and a street sweeper contending for the top job in the central city of Pokhara.

The lack of candidates means there will only be actual votes in 36 towns and cities; in the other 22 municipalities, there were no candidates or contenders ran unopposed, Thapa said.

It remained unclear how many voters would actually get to polling stations after the government ordered all vehicles off the roads, fearing rebel attacks. But officials said tens of thousands of government workers were ordered to vote.

Maoists call strike
The Maoists have also called a nationwide strike this week to disrupt the elections. While there were more vehicles on the streets of Katmandu on Tuesday than in the first two days of the strike, roads remained largely empty outside the capital. Schools also remained closed and most businesses were shut.

As fighting has persisted in this Himalayan land, the economy has worsened — per capita income is less than $25 a month.

The insurgency and the near-constant back-and-forth between the king and political parties “has made it very difficult for us have interest in this election,” said Saroj Jyoti.

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