Nepal holds landmark polls in troubled south

Nepalgunj (Nepal) (AFP) - Millions of Nepalis voted Wednesday in the country's first local elections for two decades, a key step in its post-war transformation from a feudal monarchy to a federal democracy.

The elections began last month in other parts of the nation but were repeatedly delayed in the southern plains, which were shaken two years ago by deadly ethnic protests.

The government had deployed troops and sealed the border with India, fearing violence in Wednesday's second phase of voting, which covered around half the country of 26 million people, including large swathes of the south.

As preliminary data trickled in, the Election Commission estimated 70.5 percent of eligible voters had turned out to cast their ballot.

"The second phase of the local election... has concluded peacefully and with overwhelming participation of voters," chief election commissioner Ayodhee Prasad Yadav told reporters.

Police said a small bomb exploded in the west of the country, but there were no casualties and the polls passed off broadly peacefully.

The local elections are supposed to be the final step in the peace deal that ended a 10-year civil war in 2006.

Since then the country has suffered persistent instability, cycling through nine governments in a decade.

The government had repeatedly postponed the polls in the south due to objections from the local Madhesi ethnic minority, who say federal boundaries laid out in a new national constitution will leave them under-represented in parliament.

The Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RPJ-N), the main party representing the Madhesi community, has said it will boycott Wednesday's phase, raising doubts about the legitimacy of the vote.

More than 50 people died in 2015 when the Madhesi and Tharu ethnic minorities took to the streets.

Most of the victims were shot when police fired into crowds of demonstrators -- a response condemned by rights campaigners -- and tensions persist.

But lawyer Sudip Bhattarai said people were "eagerly coming out to vote" as he cast his ballot in the southern city of Nepalgunj.

More than 60,000 candidates are competing in Wednesday's polls, which are intended to fill an institutional vacuum that has seen corruption flourish.

The last local representatives were elected in 1997 and their mandates lapsed when their five-year terms expired at the height of the brutal Maoist insurgency.

"We expect good governance, an end to corruption and acceleration of development projects," said 63-year-old Rajya Prasad Limbu, a community leader, after he cast his vote.

The polls will pave the way for provincial elections and then a national election, which must be held by January 2018 when the mandate of the current parliament expires.