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Violence Breaks Out Ahead of Nepalese Elections

MICHELLE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michelle Norris. Nine people have reportedly been killed in Nepal ahead of tomorrow's elections there. The elections are the first in seven years for the Himalayan Kingdom, and they're not for high-profile positions. The voting is for municipal jobs. Still, they're important. As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, the voters become the focus of a tense standoff between the countries embattled king on one side, and Nepal's mainstream political parties and Maoist rebels on the other.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

There's a strange, fearful mood in Katmandu. Troops and armored personnel carriers cruised the streets. Police in riot gear stand on every other corner. The few taxi drivers who dare work, cover their license plates with newspaper and conceal their faces with scarves. They don't want to be shot dead for breaking a week-long general strike, called by Nepal's mainstream political parties and enforced by Maoist insurgents. There's nowhere stranger than here. This is the mansion of Nepal's former Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba. The soldiers wandering about the gardens aren't here to protect him. He's in jail. They're here to keep an eye on his wife, Arjoo Rena Deuba, a leading member of Nepal's democratic Congress Party and a critic of tomorrow's elections.

Ms. ARJOO DEUBA (Wife of Sher Bahadur Deuba): The government, which is conducting the poll, and it's illegal government. They don't have legitimacy to conduct these polls. And besides that, the only municipal elections that are taking part in them is not going to resolve any of our national problems.

REEVES: Arjoo Rena Deuba says most of her party leaders are behind bars. She makes no secret of her view that tomorrow's elections are an ill-disguised attempt by Nepal's King Gyanendra to consolidate his power. Deuba says some of those who are running for election were coerced into doing so by the king's officials.

Ms. DEUBA: It's amazing that some of them have been beggars; some of them have been people who are, you know, working as laborers; some of them have been bus-drivers, not that ordinary people cannot represent the population, but these people have no idea about politics, and they have been literally brought over to file the nominations.

REEVES: A year ago, the king sacked the government, saying it has failed to tackle Nepal's Maoist insurgency, and took autocratic control himself. He repressed civil rights and jailed opposition politicians and journalists, who dared publicly criticize what some called his royal coup. Yet the insurgency still rages on. A four-month Maoist unilateral ceasefire ended just after New Year. Since then, the insurgents have conducted dozens of attacks. Analysts say there are huge question marks over the credibility of tomorrow's poll. The country's main political parties have boycotted it.

There are no candidates for more than half of the some 4,000 posts. Most of the rest have only one candidate. Several candidates have been assassinated, and more than 600 pulled out within two days of registering. There are signs the political instability in Nepal is taking its toll.

Mr. KUNDA DIXIT (Editor, Nepali Times): The thing is the people don't trust anyone. They don't trust Maoists; they don't trust the parties; they don't trust the king. It's a real vacuum.

REEVES: That's Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times. Tomorrow's elections have been widely criticized in the international community. Many fear Nepal, already desperately poor, is heading for collapse. The European union has called the elections a setback for democracy. Dixit says the monarch is becoming increasingly isolated abroad.

Mr. DIXIT: All of his friends have abandoned him, and the Indians used to be Nepal's biggest military supplier. They have had an embargo on military hardware since last year. And their reasoning is that, look, we were supporting the army as long as it was fighting the Maoists, but if you're going to use the army to suppress democracy and gag the press, then I'm afraid we can't support you.

REEVES: But Nepal's information minister, Shrish Rana, said the government's willing to face down its foreign critics. He says tomorrow's elections are to pave the way for general elections. He admits they won't be as democratic as he would like, but he blames the country's mainstream political parties for this.

Mr. SHRISH RANA (Information Minister, Nepal): If democracy has been depriving this election, it is not our fault. There are being organized political efforts through threats, through even using what remains through harassing to prevent the party's vision, so if there then is shortcomings in terms of democracy, it is not our fault. We had been wanting democratic elections.

REEVES: Despite everything, life still goes on. Bands still march through Katmandu streets to celebrate weddings. But politics simmer close to the surface. 21 year-old, Kiran Thapa, was one of a number of Nepalis surprisingly ready to speak out today about the country's crisis. He says he won't vote tomorrow.

Mr. KIRAN THAPA: Now it's not possible for peoIf possible, the king must (inaudible) with parties, and then (inaudible) with Maoists; then we will vote for king if we want. But in the tradition, we never vote for no one.

REEVES: Tomorrow will likely prove that many of the Nepalese feel the same way. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Katmandu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.