Polls open in 1st phase of Nepal’s long-awaited general election

Voting is under way Sunday in the first phase of Nepal’s first general election under its federal, republican Constitution ratified in 2015.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. local time and are set to close at 5 p.m.

In Mahalaxmisthan village in Nuwakot district, one-and-a-half hours’ drive north of Kathmandu, voters began arriving at a polling booth set up at Shree Bhawani Secondary School an hour before polls opened.

“I am voting for political stability,” said Ambika Phuyal, a 49-year-old housewife casting a vote for the fourth time. “We have been electing representatives hoping they will bring prosperity. But frequent government changes have dashed our hopes.”

Nepal has seen 10 coalition governments in as many years.

Phuyal, who lost two houses in the twin quakes in 2015, hoped a stable five-year government would expedite reconstruction and create jobs. “We don’t want our sons and husbands to go abroad for jobs. If jobs continue to dry up here, there won’t be anyone to participate in our funerals,” she told Kyodo News.

But Jyoti Phuyal, a 50-year-old businessman, said political stability under an authoritarian government is a big no.

“What good is political stability if we don’t have our democratic freedoms?” he questioned.

However, Surendra Balami, 18, who is casting a vote for the first time, echoed Ambika.

“Only a stable government can deliver reconstruction, education, and roads,” said Balami, who works as a driver.

Security presence is heavy in districts where voting is taking place. Roads are dotted by security checkpoints and vehicular movement is limited to emergency services and those carrying permits from the Election Commission.

In the first of two phases, candidates are contesting 37 directly elected parliamentary seats in 32 hilly and mountainous districts.

Simultaneously, candidates are contesting 74 provincial assembly seats in the districts. The new Constitution has federated Nepal into seven provinces.

Over three million voters are eligible to cast votes Sunday, with 4,465 polling centers set up for voting, according to the Election Commission.

“We are expecting 75 percent voter turnout,” Nawaraj Dhakal, the commission’s spokesman, told Kyodo News.

In view of small explosions that marked the election campaigning period, the government has mobilized the military to bolster police efforts to provide security.

“Adequate security arrangements have been made. The polling will happen peacefully,” Dhakal said.

Four international groups, including the Carter Center and the European Union, will be monitoring the polling.

The second phase of the election is scheduled on Dec. 7, when polling will take place in 45 districts in lower hills and plains. In the second phase, candidates will contest 128 directly-elected parliamentary seats, and 256 provincial assembly seats.

Combined, over 15.4 million voters are eligible to cast votes in the two-phased election.

The main contest is between an alliance of the country’s two biggest communist parties and a loose democratic alliance led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Nepali Congress party.

Pundits have predicted a comfortable majority for the communist alliance, which is contesting on the platform of political stability and economic transformation.

Deuba’s alliance with ethnic Madhesi parties and a pro-monarchy party is running on a platform of protecting democracy, arguing that the communist alliance’s win could herald an era of communist authoritarianism.

Vote counting will start on Dec. 7 after the second-phase polling is over. Because of logistical challenges, final results are not expected until mid-December at the earliest.