Nepal vote counting begins after high poll turnout

Nepal vote counting begins after high poll turnout

Kathmandu (AFP) - Nepalese officials began counting votes Wednesday as election observers, including former US president Jimmy Carter, hailed the poll's high turnout as key to cementing a peace process seven years after civil war ended.

Millions of Nepalis cast ballots Tuesday for a constituent assembly tasked with writing a new constitution, defying threats of poll violence by a breakaway faction of the Maoist party.

"The vote counting has begun," Election Commission spokesman Bir Bahadur Rai told AFP. Preliminary results were likely within three days with full results expected in around 10 days.

Former president Carter said the strong turnout represented "a momentous step forward" for the Himalayan nation, which has been in the throes of a prolonged political crisis since the end of a decade-long civil war.

Carter, 89, is in Kathmandu to lead a 50-person team from the Atlanta-based Carter Center, which monitored the November 19 vote.

"Citizens' participation is the main factor that will send a signal to the elected politicians: do something now because we demand a permanent government, we demand a constitution under which we can live," Carter told AFP.

The Carter Center also monitored Nepal's first post-war polls in 2008, which ended royal rule and transformed the country into a secular republic.

Since then, a string of coalition governments have squabbled, split and failed to write a draft constitution, forcing the collapse of the assembly in May 2012 and leaving the country frustrated over lack of progress.

"This time the prospect is much greater that they will be successful," Carter said.

Local press praised the turnout, which the election commission pegged at 70 percent, higher than the 63.29 percent logged in 2008, as a "terrific start" to the political process ahead.

"Election peaceful, outstanding voting," exulted the Nepali-language Rajdhani Daily in a front-page headline.

"Whosoever wins the elections, the Nepali people have already spoken out loud and clear: that they are willing to give the unfinished task of transition yet another go," an editorial in The Kathmandu Post said.

A Himalayan Times editorial warned lawmakers it was "time for political parties to abandon their political bickering in earnest".

"They cannot be as irresponsible as they had been earlier. The petty partisan interest must make way for broader national interests," the editorial said.

The political infighting which followed the 2008 elections included a split within the Maoist party, while the splinter Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) led a 33-party alliance which announced it would boycott polls and intimidate voters.

In recent days, protestors have torched vehicles, planted crude bombs and hurled explosives at traffic, leading to over 370 arrests and one death.

Lokraj Baral, executive chairman of the Kathmandu-based Nepal Centre for Contemporary Studies, told AFP the turnout showed that Nepalis "have clearly rejected the notion of forced boycotts and strikes".

"Not only the hardline faction, but also all other parties that organise strikes, the voters have expressed how much they hate it," Baral said.

Frequent strikes called by political parties have dealt a blow to Nepal's economy by stifling tourism and reducing GDP growth to 4.6 percent last year from 6.1 percent in 2008, according to World Bank data.

Nepal's big neighbour, India, which has traditionally exerted huge political influence in the country, called the turnout "impressive" in a foreign ministry statement.

India, which provided logistical support to election officials, said the vote was an "important step towards realising Nepal's goal of a democratic and prosperous future".

More than 100 parties, including three major ones -- the Unified Marxist-Leninist, the Nepali Congress and the Maoists -- fielded candidates for the constituent assembly, which will also serve as a parliament.