A 'Great Hush' on Nepal's Election Day

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Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, was engulfed in a "great hush" on election day this week. Major political parties boycotted the vote and insurgents threatened to kill anyone who violated a general strike. As a result, voters stayed home in droves.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. Turn out was very low in Nepal's elections yesterday, even though citizens of the Himalayan kingdom have not been allowed to vote since the late-90s. Many regard this election as a sham designed to give some legitimacy to their autocratic king, and as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, that was not the only reason that most Nepalis stayed home.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

It was never going to be easy for Nepalis to go out and vote. There was general strike. The countries Maoist insurgents had proved willing to kill those who broke it. There was a government ban on all but official vehicles in Katmandu, and Nepal's security services had been told they could shoot anyone who disrupted the polls. That meant either walking to the polling booths or weaving through the city's narrow alleys in a bicycle rickshaw.

(Soundbite of bicycle bell)

REEVES: In the end, it didn't matter. Most Nepali's didn't want to vote anyway.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

REEVES: Nepal's King Gyanendra had hoped to see his ancient capital filled with people on election day. Katmandu's usually awash with noise and traffic and pollution, yet this time it was engulfed by a great hush interrupted only by temple bells and birdsongs. In the cluster of temples around Durbar Square, in better days packed with tourists, police and troops guarded a polling station.

By the day's end, the electoral commission was talking about a turnout of around 20%. These were only municipal elections, but they were the first polls in seven years in Nepal. The King had hoped they'd help convince a skeptical world he was stepping back from autocracy and towards democracy. He's been under intense pressure at home and abroad to restore multi-party democracy after seizing control a year ago, saying this was the only way to crush the Maoist insurgency, but his subjects wouldn't play ball.

Mr. DEKARI SHAW(ph) (Shopowner): (Through a translator) I have no intention of voting. There are security reasons, which is not letting me vote, and I have no intentions of voting.

REEVES: Dekari Shaw owns a small shop in Katmandu's Temal district. He says he's not a Maoist, nor is he an ardent monarchist. He just wants an end to the violence that's plagued his country for ten years and a return to a peaceful, profitable life.

Cabin Shahid(ph), another small businessman, was even less interested in the election.

Mr. CABIN SHAHID (Small Business Owner): I don't even know who the candidate is, so what's the point in voting?

REEVES: There was always going to be a high level of disenchantment with these elections. After all, there were no candidates for half the posts, and the mainstream political parties boycotted the entire process. The issue now is what happens next.

Azu Ranandioba(ph) of the Democratic Nepali congress party says the pressure on the king will continue to grow.

Ms. AZU RANADIOBA: The people have know themselves to be sovereign for so long, and they are not accepting the king's sovereignty anymore, and so it's a very, very narrow thread that the king is standing on.

Mr. KUNDA DIXIT (Editor, Nepali Times): The bottom line here is the king's power.

REEVES: Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times.

Mr. DIXIT: How much power should he have? Now, if he was a visionary, statesman-like king, what he'd do would be voluntary hand or at least start the process of handing power back to people's representatives, genuinely, you know, not have these showcase elections and that is the crux of the matter here.

REEVES: And that's a matter which this week's elections did nothing to settle.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Katmandu.

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