Nepal Friday closed its border with India and China as it gears up for the historic round of provincial and parliamentary polls, eleven years after the country began its journey toward democracy, that many hope will bring much-needed political stability to the Himalayan nation.
Land-locked Nepal is holding provincial and parliamentary elections in two phases on November 26 and December 7.
The elections are being seen as the final step in Nepal’s transition to a federal democracy following a decade-long civil war till 2006 that claimed more than 16,000 lives.
More than 300,000 members of the security forces will be deployed for the two-stage election, with northern provinces voting on Sunday and southern areas and Kathmandu going to the polls on December 7.
Results are expected a few days after the second vote.
While many hope Nepal’s first state elections will hasten regional development, others fear they will spark a fresh wave of violence.
In 2015, when Nepal adopted a new Constitution that split it into seven states, dozens of people were killed in ethnic clashes over territory and rights.
“We created the Constitution after years of struggle, but that is not enough,” said Nabindra Raj Joshi, a senior leader of the Nepali Congress, the country’s largest political party.
“The most important part is implementation. This election will launch the provincial administration that will turn our achievements into reality.”
Following the adoption of the new Constitution in 2015, the ethnic Madhesi group, mostly of Indian-origin, protested for months, saying they were not getting enough territory in one of the states and were also facing discrimination.
Violent clashes not only left more than 50 people dead, but also left the country with severe shortages of fuel and medicine because protesters blocked the borders with India.
The protesters finally agreed to the elections after some amendments were made to the constitution.
According to officials, the crossing points with India will be sealed from today till the evening of Sunday.
Nepal-China border crossing at Rasuwagadhi and Kimathanka have been closed for 72 hours from midnight, ahead of the first phase of elections scheduled for November 26.
According to Rasuwa Chief District Officer Chomendra Neupane, the move is in line with the mandatory requirement to seal international borders ahead of the elections. The borders will remain shut till Sunday midnight.
Navaraj Dhakal, an official with the Election Commission, said there have been some incidents where candidates and their supporters have been attacked during the campaign. He said the federal government and security forces have a plan to ensure voting remains peaceful, The Himalayan Times reported.
The Election Commission has said no political party, candidates, party office bearers, independents, civil society, voters and mass media can be involved in publicity for the polls.
The EC has urged the media not to violate the election code of conduct during the silence period as that would influence voters of the first-phase polls even though campaigns for the second phase vote scheduled for December 7 continue in the remaining 45 districts.
In the first phase, 3,191,945 voters are eligible to caste their ballot from 4,465 polling centres. As many as 702 candidates–including 282 (266 male and 16 female) for federal parliament and 420 (400 male and 20 female) for the provincial assemblies–are contesting for 37 federal and 74 provincial seats, according to election officials.
With stiff competition expected from the UML-Maoist alliance in the polls, the Nepali Congress (NC) and Madhes-based parties are under pressure to forge electoral alliances across the Madhes districts neighbouring India even at the eleventh hour, according to political observers.
Party insiders said there was mounting pressure from local level leaders and cadres in various districts to work further on the electoral alliance.
Earlier, the NC and the two Madhes-based parties had been engaged in negotiations, but could not forge an electoral alliance.
Election campaign will end on Friday mid-night, 48 hours ahead of the polls.
The polls are taking place under a new Constitution passed by lawmakers in September 2015 as part of a peace process that began with the end of a decade-long civil war.
The polls are a major step toward implementing the new Constitution.