Violence feared as Nepal goes to the polls


The Himalayan kingdom of Nepal votes on its political future this week, but many fear the landmark elections, which could mean the end of the world's only Hindu monarchy, could also end in violence.

Thursday's polls for a body to rewrite Nepal's constitution are the climax of a peace deal that ended a decade-long Maoist insurgency, which cost at least 13,000 lives and crippled the economy of one of the world's poorest countries.

But both the former left-wing rebels and die-hard royalists stand accused of plotting to go back to war if the elections go badly for them.

The Maoists signed a peace pact with Nepal's mainstream parties in late 2006, and the partners have since closed ranks against the unpopular and authoritarian King Gyanendra.

In principle, the new Constituent Assembly will declare the end of the 240-year-old Shah dynasty now led by Gyanendra, who took the throne in 2001 after most of the royal family was shot dead by a prince.

But the agreement is looking shaky, with many politicians arguing some form of royal structure is needed to preserve the unity and neutrality of the tiny country sandwiched between India and China.

With ethnic violence increasing along Nepal's southern border with India and anti-Chinese protests spilling over from Tibet, many voters may think twice about opting for the kind of radical change called for by the Maoists.

The former rebels, still classified by the United States as an international terrorist group, do not expect to achieve much at the polls, observers say.

"There are two forces that still don't want elections," the weekly Nepali Times said in an editorial.

"The radical royal right, because the polls will consign the monarchy to the history books; and the ultra-left which foresees defeat in the polls and therefore wants to scupper or usurp votes through threats."

The Maoists have accused the 90,000-strong army of plotting a coup to defend the king.

While campaigning near Kathmandu on Saturday, Maoist leader Prachanda accused the royals of trying to scupper the polls and the fragile peace process but said they would not succeed.

"Time and time again they have tried to disrupt and sabotage this process but they haven't been able to because the political consciousness of the masses is very high," said Prachanda, whose nom-de-guerre means "the fierce one."

With no party likely to win a clear majority, the post-election period could mean more unrest for Nepal, the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, has warned.

"Nepal has many possible flashpoints, not least that the two armies that fought the war remain intact, politically uncompromising and combat-ready," the group said. (AFP)