KATHMANDU Nepalis voted on Tuesday for an assembly that will draft a constitution aimed at ending years of instability but the election may not produce a conclusive result and could leave the country facing more turmoil.
Nepal's giant neighbors, India and China, have grown increasingly concerned about its prolonged struggle to build a stable republic to replace a centuries old monarchy that was toppled by a 10-year revolt by Maoist rebels.
The fear is that the poor, mountainous country of nearly 27 million people, which is dependent on tourism, remittances and aid, will drift without effective government and become a haven for militants and criminal gangs.
On Tuesday, a bomb exploded near a polling station in the capital, Kathmandu, wounding a boy, police said. A 33-party alliance led by a breakaway group of Maoists, who took up politics after ending their guerrilla war in 2006, has called for an election boycott.
Police fired in the air in three districts in the west and east of the country after unidentified men tried to snatch ballot papers. A woman was injured.
Clashes between political workers were also reported in several places but police spokesman Ganesh K.C. said there had been no major violence by around mid-day.
Voters showed up early to elect the 601-member constituent assembly that will act as a parliament and establish a government until a charter is ready.
"We have to give the politicians another chance," said Lal Bahadur Lama, 58, as he emerged from a polling booth in the capital where soldiers stood guard.
The streets of Kathmandu, a temple-studded city set in a Himalayan valley flanked by peaks, were largely deserted as the government ordered all vehicles off the roads for election day.
A previous attempt at drawing up a constitution after a 2008 election failed with political parties unable to agree on the form of government and the number of states to be carved out of the ethnically diverse country.
Nepal has had five governments in as many years as bickering politicians have formed and broken alliances.
"RUSH TO POWER"
Annual economic growth has slowed to about 3.5 percent over the past five years, a long way behind growth in India and China, and too insipid to absorb the half a million young people entering the job market each year.
Every day, about 1,600 Nepalis, most of them young and unskilled, leave for work, mostly in the Middle East, Malaysia and South Korea. Remittances account for more than 20 percent of gross domestic product.
Bimal Koirala, a former top bureaucrat, said there was no sign of a pickup in investment and he expected growth to slow further.
"The political stalemate is not going to end any time soon," said Koirala who served as chief secretary, the highest-ranking bureaucrat. "All that the political parties are interested in is to rush to power."
The election is being fought by the Maoists, who joined the political mainstream after signing a peace deal in 2006, the Nepali Congress party, the country's oldest party, and scores of others including a royalist group that wants to reinstate the monarchy and revert to a Hindu state from the current secular republic.
President Ram Baran Yadav urged people to vote, saying the world was watching.
"We have to give a message to the international community that Nepal is able to draft a new constitution," Yadav said in a statement late on Monday.
The vote count will begin on Wednesday but with many ballots having to be collected from remote areas, it is likely to take a week before a clear picture emerges.
The Maoists were the largest bloc after the last election but they are expected to lose ground as their leader and former guerrilla commander, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, more commonly known as Prachanda, has faced criticism for straying away from their leftist ideals.
(Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Michael Perry)