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Nepal seeks unity from its first local elections in 20 years

Crucial ethnic group belatedly joins vote, apparently spurred by India

Voters wait for over an hour in Biratnagar to cast their ballots in Nepal's first local election since 1997. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

BIRATNAGAR, Nepal Nearly 200 men and women stood in line outside a high school in the eastern city of Biratnagar at 6:50 a.m. on June 28, waiting for the start of voting in Nepal's first local elections since 1997.

"I have wanted to choose local leaders for the past 20 years," said 75-year-old Ramlakhan Mandal, who cast the first ballot after having waited since 5 a.m.

Nepal is voting to choose mayors, ward chiefs and other local officials. The Himalayan country of about 30 million has not seen democracy exercised on such a scale at a local level since 1997, after a decade of internal conflict involving Maoist rebels until 2006, political instability after the abolition of the monarchy in 2008 and a devastating earthquake in 2015.

"It was a painful time," said rickshaw puller Ram Padarath Sahani recalling the period 20 years ago. "We Madhesi were strongly dissuaded from standing as candidates."

Nepali society has historically been divided into two broad ethnic groups: communities in the highlands such as the Khas Arya, who have traditionally held political power, and people of Indian origin inhabiting the southern Terai plain, including the Madhesi, who account for 20% of the country's population.

"Finally, I have been able to vote for a Madhesi candidate," Sahani said.

Sahani's vote is part of the biggest political transition since the monarchy was abolished. The process, which began with the new constitution of 2015, requires the local elections to be completed soon as provincial and parliamentary votes also need to be held by January 2018, when the current term of parliament members expires.

But ethnic divisions have prevented Nepal from holding local elections across all seven provinces simultaneously. Delays in the southern provinces were largely put down to Madhesi opposition. Political leaders demanded amendments prior to the election, claiming the new constitution set provincial boundaries to weaken the Madhesi.

India has been pressuring Nepal to amend the constitution, and was allegedly responsible for blocking major trade routes into the country -- or of supporting Madhesi to do so -- for half a year from September 2015, cutting off fuel and food from the landlocked country and delaying reconstruction after the earthquake.

Restaurants in Kathmandu had to serve dishes with few vegetables, which locals dubbed the "Modi menu" after the Indian prime minister. Nepal ultimately turned to China to enhance economic and political ties.

"Now, more than 80% of Madhesi will participate in this election," Upendra Yadav, chairman of the Sanghiya Samajwadi Forum Nepal, a Madhesi party, told the Nikkei Asian Review. His decision to participate a few weeks ago has brought most sections of the group into the fold.

Yadav's decision "is good for national integrity and unity" among different ethnic groups, said one of the youth leaders of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) in Biratnagar. However, he criticized the fact that the decision came only after "holding meetings at [the Indian] embassy" in Kathmandu. It is "not an ideal move, as it harms our national integrity."

Indian Ambassador Manjeev Singh Puri reportedly met Madhesi leaders at the end of May and told them to participate in the elections.

Asked why India had changed its stance, one senior source in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an Indian Hindu nationalist group that supports Modi, said that "any major political unrest in Nepal may lead to a mass exodus of Madhesi to India, which could potentially lead to social, economic and political conflict."

Aside from potential unrest on its doorstep, New Delhi's decision to back off may be down to a desire to avoid any unnecessary damage to its claim to being the world's largest democracy.

Regardless of the outcome, Kathmandu-based political columnist Shekhar Kharel sees the ongoing inclusive election as "the best way to keep foreign actors out of domestic affairs."

With Nepal continuously faced with walking a tightrope between its two giant neighbors, participation from all ethnic groups can only strengthen the sovereignty of the country.

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