Nepal votes in 1st provincial polls amid democracy hopes

CHAUTARA: Residents of mountain villages and foothill towns voted Sunday in Nepal's first provincial polls, with the hope of bringing government closer to the Himalayan nation's rural and remote areas.

Nepal's chief election commissioner, Ayodhi Prasad Yadav, said turnout was more than 65 percent among the 3.2 million voters who were choosing lawmakers in seven newly formed federal states as well as the national assembly.

The lawmakers who are elected on Sunday, and Dec. 7 in the remaining parts of the country, will be able to name their states, draft provincial laws and choose local leaders.

"The central government is finally moving to our region. We will be closer to the government now with the state assemblies," said schoolteacher Swasthani Thapa, who was among the voters lining outside the polling station at Chautara, 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of Kathmandu, even before it opened at 7 a.m.

Chautara was one of the areas hardest hit by a devastating 2015 earthquake. People in Nepal's mountain regions complained they did not get enough help from the central government because their voices were not heard. Two years later, destroyed and damaged houses are still scattered around Chautara and surrounding areas.

"This is a historic day for us," said businessman Surya Lal Shrestha. "The setting up of states will give final shape to the democracy process, which should finally bring stability and development for our country."

In nearby Balefi village, election official Rijedra Subedi said people walked up to four hours to reach the polling station from their remote mountain villages.

"Farmer left their fields and laborers took the day off to come vote with their families," Subedi said.

Nepal's slow path to democracy began in 2006, when protesters forced the king to give up his rule. Two years later, Nepal officially abolished the centuries-old monarchy and decided that a federal system would best deliver services to all corners of the nation, which remains one of the poorest in the world.

But bickering among political parties delayed until 2015 the implementation of the new constitution, which declared Nepal a republic.

Security was stepped up for the elections, with thousands of police and army soldiers deployed. According to the Home Ministry, more than 400 people were detained in days leading up to the vote.

Soon after the constitution was implemented in 2015, protests by ethnic groups in southern Nepal turned violent and left some 50 people dead.

The ethnic Madhesi group protested for months, saying they did not get enough territory in the province assigned to them. They said they deserved more land because they represented a bigger population. Their protest blocked the border with India for months, cutting off fuel and other supplies in Nepal.