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Nepalese Parties Boycott Municipal Election

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We might not normally report on local elections in the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal, but today's balloting is taking place in highly unusual circumstances. It is the first vote since Nepal's King seized absolute power a year ago.

While it's being billed by the government as an exercise in democracy, the country's mainstream political parties are boycotting the vote, and Maoist insurgents are in control of a large portion of the countryside. Beyond that, more than half of the available elected positions have no takers, partly because of the fear of reprisals. NPR's Philip Reeves is in the capital, Katmandu, and he joins us now.

And, Philip, these are only municipal elections, they're not even nationwide, but they are being seen as being very significant. Explain to us how that happens to be.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Well, this is a critical moment for the King, Gyanendra. He took over the throne, you remember, after the massacre of much of the royal family in 2001, and he's under growing pressure from both within and outside the country to restore multiparty democracy, not least because his year of absolute rule has failed to bring an end to the ten-year Maoist insurgency. The economy's in terrible shape, and he's also attracted a lot of international criticism by using draconian measures to stifle opposition, such as jailing hundreds of political opponents.

Now, by holding these elections today, for municipal jobs like, you know, mayor and deputy mayor, the King's aim is to convince a war-weary Nepali public that he is genuinely moving back to democracy, even though many here suspect he's actually using these elections to shew in supporters of the Palace and consolidate and legitimize his rule.

MONTAGNE: Well, how democratic are these elections? Most particularly, given the mainstream political parties aren't participating?

REEVES: Well, you know, it's not easy to hold democratic elections when you have a general strike in place, as we do here today. And people are frightened of getting shot by Maoists for breaking it, and when the government itself has banned all cars from the capital, except for the official ones.

There've been problems, though, with these elections from the start, many of which are to do with the security situation. More than half the posts have no contenders, no candidates, because no one dared defied the Maoists. Much of the rest are shoe-ins, as they were uncontested. The mainstream parties aren't taking part, and there's widespread allegations that candidates were being pressured by the government into running. In fact, a lot of people don't appear to know who the candidates are, although that may also be because there's been very little campaigning.

MONTAGNE: Now, you've been out and about in Katmandu this morning, is that what you've been hearing from people?

REEVES: Yes, in fact, it's a most unusual scene. Katmandu is normally a bustling, noisy, overcrowded grubby south Asian capital awash with cars. Today, there's a great hush in the city. There's no traffic, people are wandering around on foot or bicycle. You can actually hear the bird song and the clatter of temple bells for once. There are soldiers and police everywhere, but people are saying that they aren't interested, particularly, in voting in these. I had to go from polling booth to polling booth on bicycle rickshaw, because of the lack of taxis, but I didn't see many people taking part in these elections.

MONTAGNE: Philip, thanks very much. NPR's Philip Reeves in the Nepalese capital, Katmandu.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. 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.
Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.