Tallies Show Nepal's Maoists Ahead

KATHMANDU, Nepal -- Nepal's Maoists were marching to victory in the Himalayan nation's first election in nine years, latest tallies showed on Sunday, a result almost nobody had expected.

The Maoists, who ended an insurgency two years ago and entered electoral politics, had won 44 of the 81 seats declared so far and were also leading by a similar proportion in other constituencies where counting was continuing, election officials said.

Two other parties -- the Communist UML and the Nepali Congress -- earlier thought to be favorites have so far won only 15 and 14 seats respectively.

The Maoists were also doing better than expected in the country's southern plains, home to nearly half of the population, an area where they were thought to be weak, latest tallies showed.

Two ethnic Madheshi parties, who organized a crippling strike this year demanding autonomy for the region called the Terai, have jointly won seven seats so far.

The outcome of Thursday's election, the centerpiece of the peace deal, has surprised many analysts who had predicted the former rebels would emerge as the third largest party.

"It has come as a bang," said Lok Raj Baral of Nepal Centre for Strategic Studies, a private think-tank. "It is possible that they will win a majority."

Baral said the results were a mandate for a change from the ineffective old political order. The Maoists, on the other hand, had maintained their network at the grass-root level from their days as rebel fighters, he said.

Others said even if the Maoists were not able to clinch a majority they were clearly heading towards becoming the single largest party. They controlled 84 seats in the 329-member interim parliament after they abandoned the insurgency.