Democracy for high Himalayas comes by yak teams, helicopter

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am

On the snowy trails of Nepal's Himalayas, teams of porters, ponies and yaks are busy hauling election kits to remote polling stations in preparation for a national vote on April 10.

While serious political and security issues have many wondering if the election will take place, an enormous logistical effort is under way to make a poll possible.

'We send [election materials] by trucks to some point and then we have to use the helicopters for the remote areas,' said Election Commission spokesman Laxman Bhattarai.

'After that it is two, three days, even seven days from district headquarters, so we have to use donkeys and porters. Very challenging.'

The most remote polling stations are in villages a week's walk from the airstrip at Humla district headquarters, in Nepal's far northwest. Seventeen of Nepal's 75 districts have no roads, according to the UN.

International election advisers say the lack of infrastructure, cold weather and mountains make it unusually difficult to hold an election.

'While Iraq had specific challenges related to security, the challenge in Nepal is the topography,' said Darren Nance, field director for The Carter Centre, which will observe the elections.

In addition to five regional teams of long-term observers already in Nepal, the former US president's organisation has a two-person 'roaming team' who specialise in hiking in the Himalayas to assess the election in remote villages.

This is the kind of special effort needed to serve the record 17.6 million voters who have registered. They will vote for 601 members of a Constituent Assembly, a body set to reshape Nepal.

This April will be the first time the Election Commission has undertaken a national vote without the logistical support of Nepal's army. Under a peace deal signed by the rebel Maoists and government in November 2006, the insurgents and their weapons are confined to UN-supervised camps across Nepal and the army must stay in its barracks.

The commission will deploy 240,000 polling staff and police will handle security, bolstered by 70,000 temporary police. With militant groups vowing to disrupt the election in southern districts, security will be a major challenge.

Another hurdle may be money. The election is expected to cost US$43.5 million, but it is still not known where the final US$19 million will come from. International support has been significant, with technical advice and there is the US$2.3 million foreign-funded Nepal Peace Trust Fund.

The financial point of no return comes on February 20, when parties nominate their candidates. Almost immediately government presses in Kathmandu will begin printing the 41 million ballot papers needed to deal with Nepal's complex split voting system.

Each of the 74 parties will have their name and symbol printed on two A3 sheets - one for the first-past-the-post vote (40 per cent of total seats) and one for the proportional representation vote (56 per cent). The prime minister will nominate an extra 26 members.

If all goes to plan, from 7am on April 10 the polling stations will open and officials will start dipping the fingers of each voter into one of 70,000 vials of indelible ink to ensure they only vote once.

Due to a high rate of illiteracy, party symbols are printed on the ballots, including a few unusual pictures such as a comb, chicken and a soccer ball.

Once voters mark their preference with a stamp of a reversed swastika (an ancient symbol of good luck), and drop their two ballots into separate boxes, the votes will be transported to the 75 district counting stations for tallying. 'Within one week we are planning to have a result,' said Mr Bhattarai.