Kathmandu (AFP) - Nepal holds its first local elections in two decades on Sunday hoping to cement a fraught transition to democracy and fill an institutional void that has seen corruption flourish.
The last local representatives were elected in 1997 and their mandates lapsed after their five-year terms expired at the height of the brutal Maoist insurgency.
After a 2006 peace deal ended a conflict in which 16,000 people died, the impoverished Himalayan nation began a rocky transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular federal republic, which has seen the country go through nine governments.
In the vacuum left at the local level, graft has become a way of life. Nepal is ranked one of the most corrupt countries in South Asia.
Bureaucrats appointed on the basis of allegiance to political parties filled local government positions, and spawned a shadow industry of brokers who earned fees for everything from getting citizenship documents to registering a marriage.
When Mahananda Timilsina decided to extend his house, getting permission took months of work and involved hefty bribes.
"If there were elected representatives at the local level, the civil servants wouldn't dare to ask for bribes from us," said the 35-year-old.
Many of the nearly 50,000 people vying for 13,556 seats in Sunday's polls are shunning the main political parties to run as independents or as candidates for new reformist parties.
"It couldn't get any worse. The gap between society and government couldn't get any wider," George Varughese, Nepal representative for the Asia Foundation think-tank, told AFP.
Varughese said the elections could "undermine the current political dominance of the main three parties."
In Kathmandu, 21-year-old Ranju Darshana, whose party name, Bibeksheel Nepali, translates as the "party for rational Nepalis" is running for mayor.
Also hoping to snatch the votes of people fed up with the graft-ridden system, is a party recently set up by a former chief editor of the BBC's Nepali service, Rabindra Mishra, who left journalism pledging to clean up the political quagmire.
Both are expected grab votes from the main parties, but neither are likely to win.
- 'Forced to be corrupt' -
Under a new 2015 constitution, local elections followed by provincial and national elections have to be held by January 2018 -- the final step in the drawn-out peace process.
The charter gives local governments to be elected Sunday a large degree of autonomy in how they spend allocated funds.
Observers say the measure will help undermine the deeply ingrained rent-seeking culture.
"The allocation of funds will be tailored to suit the local needs, rather than tailored to the centre. And tailored by people who are accountable at the local level," said Varughese.
But not everyone is optimistic.
Anti-corruption activist Sharada Bhusal said the polls would only cement the current corrupt system, particularly in rural communities.
"It is the same so-called leaders who will contest in the election as well. It will strengthen the foundation of the political parties -- from bottom to top. It will legitimise them in the system," she said.
Bhusal added that low wages for local level officials was part of the problem -- the best paid get less than $250 a month.
"They are almost in a situation where they are forced to be corrupt to feed themselves," she said.
Nepal ranks 131 out of 176 countries in Transparency International's global corruption perception index.
The watchdog's survey found that in Nepal political parties and public officials were considered the most graft-ridden institutions -- viewed as corrupt by 90 percent and 85 percent of people.
Bhusal says the system leaves ordinary Nepalese without basic services, while the politically well-connected get richer.
Polls open at 7:00am (0115 GMT) on Sunday in three provinces, with 283 local municipalities voting for candidates for seven positions.
The vote has been split into two phases because of the threat of unrest in the southern plains bordering India. The remaining four provinces will vote on June 14.