Nepal votes Thursday in the final round of historic parliamentary elections aimed at drawing a line under years of conflict and political turmoil in the Himalayan country.
Thousands of police and soldiers have been deployed in the capital Kathmandu and the volatile southern lowlands for the vote after pre-election violence that has left one dead and dozens injured.
It is the second phase of a watershed election for national and provincial parliaments under a new constitution that represents the culmination of the transition from feudal monarchy to federal democracy following a brutal civil war that ended 11 years ago.
“I’m feeling very happy to cast a vote because it can change the future of our country, which we are expecting,” said Kathmandu voter Samita Joshi.
“As a young person I think that it will bring hope and opportunities.”
More than 12.2 million people are eligible to vote in the elections, the first phase of which passed off peacefully last month.
But the south is home to a mosaic of ethnic minorities who say the constitution leaves them politically marginalised, a cause that has sparked bloody protests in recent years.
Political analyst Chandra Kishor Jha said violence could return if the promises of a fairer distribution of power were not met under the new federal system.
“If they cannot fulfil their promises then the groups that have been part of the struggle will not stay quiet. There is possibility of conflict again,” he told AFP.
The vote will establish the country’s first provincial assemblies, devolving power away from a top-heavy central government that has cycled through 10 leaders in the last 11 years.
The newly-elected assemblies will be tasked with naming their provinces, which are currently referred to by number, as well as choosing capitals and negotiating budgets with Kathmandu — all sensitive considerations that could rekindle tensions in the ethnically-diverse south.
– Politically marginalised –
Years of political turbulence have hampered development in the impoverished Himalayan nation, which is still recovering from a powerful earthquake that hit more than two years ago, killing 9,000 people and destroying over half a million homes.
It took nine years after the end of a decade-long civil war to agree to a new constitution. The charter adopted in 2015 mandated a sweeping overhaul of Nepal’s political system to give greater autonomy to the provinces.
But it also sparked deadly protests in the south by ethnic minority groups who say it leaves them politically marginalised, and have demanded it be changed.
The communist CPN-UML party is expected to sweep the polls, buoyed by its alliance with the main Maoist party comprised of former rebels who fought government forces for a decade.
But the nationalist CPN-UML has strongly opposed amending the constitution to address the demands of ethnic minorities that it views as being more closely aligned with India.
Many in the southern lowlands share close linguistic and cultural ties with Indians across the border.
Nepal’s powerful neighbour to the south has long played the role of big brother in the landlocked country.
But in recent years Kathmandu has played diplomatic ping-pong with its two large neighbours, India and China, who use big-ticket infrastructure projects to vie for influence.
Counting of ballot papers from both phases of the elections will begin once polling stations close at 5:00 pm (1115 GMT). Results are expected in the next few days.