Nepal begins voting in historic election

(AP) - Nepalis embraced the country's return to democracy Thursday in an election meant to secure lasting peace in a land riven by communist insurgents and an autocratic king. Voters were undeterred by scattered shootings and clashes that killed two people.

With the rebels out of the bush and contesting the vote and the now sidelined monarch - the world's last Hindu king - likely to soon lose his throne, millions saw the Himalayan country's first election in nine years as a moment too historic to miss.

"This is our chance to stop the bleeding," said Arpana Shrestha, a 47-year-old housewife waiting to vote in Katmandu. "Always there was blood in Nepal. Not anymore."

Her optimism certainly captured Thursday's mood. An estimated 60 percent of the 17.6 million voters cast ballots, many of them lining up before dawn outside the 20,000 polling stations. In many places, there was applause as voting got under way and when it ended.

But such hope was belied by the deaths of two people - including an independent candidate. The bloodshed underscored how hard it will be to forge true peace in this often ill-governed and violent country.

The election of a 601-seat Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution has been touted as the cornerstone of a 2006 peace deal struck with former rebels, known as the Maoists, following weeks of unrest that forced Nepal's king to cede power, which he had seized the year before.

In the two years since, Nepal has seen an armed uprising by ethnic minority groups on its southern plains, unrest that twice delayed the vote before being quelled.

The election campaign itself was marked by clashes between supporters of rival parties and a series of small bombings. In the two days before the vote, eight people were killed.

Thursday's death toll of two people was smaller than most had feared it would be. But it nonetheless marred a day that held great symbolic value for many in the impoverished Himalayan nation, where 60 percent of the 27 million people are under age 35 and many were voting for the first time.

"We are getting our rights and these people have to kill. It's not good," said Gopal Acharya, a 22-year-old student in Katmandu who was casting the first ballot of his life.

In southeastern Nepal, unidentified assailants fatally shot an independent candidate outside a polling station. Elsewhere, motorcycle-riding gunmen unsuccessfully tried to kill another contender. Police named no suspects in either incident.

Also in southern Nepal, a supporter of the centrist Nepali Congress died from wounds sustained in a clash with supporters of a minority ethnic group, the Madeshis, who have long agitated for more autonomy.

All told, authorities were forced to call off balloting at 33 polling places, said Chief Election Commissioner Bhoj Raj Pokhrel. Officials would decide in the next week when to rerun those votes, he said.

Among the places where voting was canceled were a few stations in the eastern Ramechap district where Maoists blocked representatives of other parties from observing the vote, said Home Ministry spokesman Ekmani Nepal.

Maoists also torched a polling station in central Nepal. Police said they later arrested 15 men, seizing three grenades and a knife.

Maoist officials in Katmandu said they were trying to verify the reports.

Their leader, who goes by the nom de guerre Prachanda, nonetheless hailed the election, saying in a statement: "We believe this will take Nepal to a new era."

But before Nepal can get there, significant challenges remain.

The violence could easily provide a pretext for any of the major parties - from the Maoists to centrist democrats to hard-core royalists - to reject the poll's outcome.

There is also the complexity of the vote itself, a mix of direct elections and a nationwide proportional representation system with quotas for women and Nepal's myriad ethnic and caste groups. International experts say it will be hard to sort out the results in the coming weeks.

"Parties will trade allegations of fraud and violence" in the election's aftermath, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, warned in a recent report. "The behavior of powerful losers will shape the immediate aftermath."

Those powerful losers could include the Maoists, expected to place behind Nepal's traditional electoral powers, the Nepal Congress and left-wing Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist).

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said initial reports indicated that "the level of violence and some of the issues of concern are somewhat less than we might have expected going in."

He called the vote "an important moment for Nepal" but said he would hold off on further comment until the elections results are known.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated the people of Nepal for an "orderly and peaceful" election and appealed to all parties for calm while awaiting the results, U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said at U.N. headquarters in New York.

The U.N. says the Maoists have been behind a majority of the election-related violence. They also have 20,000 former fighters camped across the country, and their weapons are stored in easily accessible containers under a U.N.-monitored peace deal.

Observers also worry about armed minority ethnic groups on the southern plains.

And then there is the one man who is as close to a sure loser as Nepal has at the moment - King Gyanendra.

The major parties have already agreed to abolish the 239-year-old monarchy at the assembly's first sitting. But he still has supporters in the upper echelons of the army and among Hindu fundamentalists who see him as the incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.

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