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Voters look for change in Nepal's 'historic' elections

First local-level elections in 20 years seen as a game-changer in the fledgling democracy

Voters look for change in Nepal's 'historic' elections

Women voters from Lalitpur display their voting identity cards after casting their ballot in Nepal's local elections. (Photo by Pragati Shahi) 

Pragati Shahi, Kathmandu
Nepal

May 16, 2017

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May 14 is a day Jharana Khatri will remember for a very long time. So excited Khatri was that she could hardly sleep the previous night, in anticipation of making it to the polling station in Nepal's Lalitpur district. 

"I was super excited to vote for the first time," the 19-year-old said after visiting a polling station inside High View English Secondary School. The polls were for officials in municipal and village councils was the first in 20 years in what many are saying is a historic moment in Nepal's transition to democracy. 

"There was a lot of campaigning going on in my neighborhood and I felt it was my responsibility to come out and vote," she said.

Khatri along with her friend Nisha Thapa were among nearly 5 million people who voted in the initial phase of the local elections. Nearly 50,000 officials will be elected in 283 municipalities.

The first phase of the elections took place in 34 out of 75 districts May 14. The second round of voting is scheduled for June 14 in the remaining provinces. 

The elections are being conducted in two phases largely due to violence in districts dominated by the otherwise minority Madhesi ethnic group who are refusing to participate until an amendment to the constitution with regard to their representation and autonomy is passed.

"It is encouraging to see a lot of young candidates vying for various posts in the election. I didn't care about politics but with so many problems in society and the country I feel there is a need for change and young people are capable of bringing that change," Khatri said. "It is time for young people to show they are real change-makers and work for community development."

The incumbent coalition government, led by Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, decided to hold local elections mandated by the new constitution promulgated in 2015. To institutionalize the transition from a Hindu monarchy into a federal republic, Nepal needs to hold local, provincial and federal elections by January 2018.

"It marks the beginning of a new era where people will have locally-elected representatives to take into account their needs and aspirations," said Father Silas Bogati, chief executive officer of Caritas Nepal, who was appointed an election observer in Kathmandu.

"While visiting a couple of polling stations, I saw people who were eager to choose their local-level candidates. There was a festive mood. They have waited a long time to choose representatives to address their problems," he said.

Father Bogati said successful local elections would empower local communities and help religious minorities, including Christians, to work with local authorities in a coordinated manner.

"We will have to work more with local authorities. It will be easy to deal with issues of concern with local government officials rather than dealing with the central government directly," he said.

Father Bogati, however, expressed concern that some candidates used anti-religious statements to lure voters. "It is unfortunate that some local candidates are using an anti-Christian agenda to lure votes. Everyone should know that we are Nepali first and then Christians," he said.

However, Shanti Magarati, a voter said, "I don't expect anything big from these elections. I just want the candidate I am voting for to work for community development, provide us with clean drinking water and healthy air for my baby." 

"There are lot of problems to fix. My husband has gone to the Middle East to support the family after failing to get job here. I need elected officials to create employment opportunities," she added.

As of May 16, two days after the first round of local elections, the count is still underway. Three people including two in Dolakha district and one in Kalikot district died in clashes that took place on polling day.

By the end of the first round of the elections, the Election Commission said the elections remained largely peaceful, except for a few reports of clashes in some places, with a voter turnout of 73 percent.

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