New Delhi: Nepal went to polls on Sunday in the first round of a two-phase election under the provisions of a new 2015 constitution that India hopes will bring a credible result and a stable government with which it can deepen ties, against the backdrop of China’s growing inroads in the Himalayan nation.
The Nepal elections—following polling for 753 local bodies held earlier this year after a two-decade gap—have been deemed historic, seen as the final step in Nepal’s transition to a federal democracy after the end of a decade-long civil war in 2006 that claimed more than 16,000 lives.
Previously, Nepal went to the polls in 2008 and then again in 2013 for a constituent assembly, which doubled up as a Parliament. The main task of the 601-member Constituent Assembly was to write a new constitution that would lay the foundation of Nepal’s transition to a federal republic.
The primary face-off in the Nepal elections is between the Nepali Congress (NC) led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and a new Left alliance comprising the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) led by former prime minister K.P. Sharma Oli and Maoists led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal—popularly known by his nom de guerre Prachanda.
A handful of political parties —the Madhesi groups, representing the Terai region—are contesting the polls with the understanding that they will join forces with the NC later, say news reports out of Nepal.
Some 3.2 million people out of an estimated 15 million eligible voters cast their ballot on Sunday, according to the Nepalese election commission website. Nepal’s chief election commissioner, Ayodhi Prasad Yadav, said Sunday’s turnout was around 65%, PTI reported. A second round of voting will be held on 7 December with Nepal election results expected later next month.
Up for grabs this time are 275 parliamentary seats. Voters will also be choosing representatives to seven provincial assemblies for the first time. The winners will then elect an upper house of parliament as well as the new president of Nepal.
The polls are significant for India.
“India would like to see a government in Kathmandu that is empathetic to its interests," said retired Commodore C.U. Bhaskar, director at the Society for Policy Studies.
“Empathy is the critical factor here," Bhaskar said, pointing to the fact that Nepalese political parties in the past had pitted India against China. “Over the past decade, China has become a major factor in Nepal," he added.
In recent years, China has taken up a number of infrastructure projects in Nepal and unveiled plans to build a rail link through the Himalayas. Two major hydel power projects in Nepal, the West Seti and Buodhi Gandaki, were awarded to Chinese companies though the latter was cancelled by the Deuba government earlier this month. Earlier this year, Chinese defence minister Chang Wanquan visited Nepal, the first ever by a Chinese defence minister to the country.
According to former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, “China seems to have played a major role behind the scenes in uniting the Leftist groups in Nepal and bringing them together. The aim is to ensure that the Nepalese government does not give India prime importance but adopt a non-aligned approach," he said.
PTI and Reuters contributed to this story.