Nepalese Election to Create Republic, Bring in Maoists

KATMANDU, Nepal -- Nepal stages a historic election on Thursday meant to rope a once-feared Maoist guerrilla army into democratic politics and bring an end to a once-loved 240-year Hindu monarchy.

High in the Himalayas, impoverished, ill-governed Nepal is hoping that its first elections in nine years will help cement peace after a decade-long civil war, and allow it finally to join its booming big brother, India, in a new era of prosperity.

Two years after mass street protests brought an end to an ill-fated period of royal rule, the vote will also formally restore democracy to Nepal.

Yet the challenges ahead are immense, not least because violence and intimidation have seriously marred the campaign and could undermine the voting day itself.

The main, but far from the only, culprits are the Maoists, seemingly unable to leave behind the bullying tactics that brought them this far. Their youth wing is accused of beating up rival party workers and systematically threatening voters.

One of the biggest questions facing Nepal today is just how well the Maoists will fare at the polls, and if they will accept defeat peacefully.

With no elections for nearly a decade, and no opinion polls, the results are "anybody's guess," said one Western diplomat.

Thursday's vote will establish a 601-member assembly whose first task will be to rubber-stamp an agreement reached by major political parties last year to abolish the monarchy and establish a republic -- the Maoists' main demand during the war.