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Asia Crisis

Nepal's delayed elections set for April 10

(Recasts throughout with details, quotes, analysis)

KATHMANDU, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Nepal will hold its first national elections in nearly nine years on April 10, the government said on Friday, capping a peace process with the Maoists after a long civil war.

The twice-delayed elections will establish a special assembly which is meant to write a new constitution for Nepal, formally declare the country a republic after more than two centuries of royal rule and replace the current interim parliament.

"This time the elections will not be postponed under any circumstances," Minister for Labour and Transport Ramesh Lekhak told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

But analysts said formidable challenges remained, not least because the government has very little control of parts of the fertile southern plains bordering India, which have seen serious unrest over the past year.

"The government and the Maoists can't hold this election without improving the law and order situation and addressing the demand for provincial autonomy," said Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of the newsmagazine, Samay.

The holding of elections for the constituent assembly, originally meant to decide the future of the monarchy, had been a central demand of the Maoists during a civil war which began in 1996 and cost more than 13,000 lives.

But the process was thrown into doubt after the former rebels quit the interim government three months ago, demanding the monarchy be abolished before the elections were even held.

The impasse ended in December when the government agreed to that demand, and parliament voted to abolish the monarchy.

RUBBER STAMP

Now the 601-member assembly can only rubber stamp parliament's decision to turn the impoverished nation into a republic, and lacks the power to overturn it.

The Maoists also said the polls would go ahead as scheduled, but unrest in the plains of the southern Terai casts a shadow.

Scores of people have been killed in protests by ethnic Madheshi people, demanding autonomy for the fertile Terai, or in clashes between dozens of other marginalised and armed groups since the peace deal with the Maoists was signed in 2006.

The Madheshi People's Rights Forum has already unveiled protest plans for this month to press for "regional autonomy with the right to self-determination" in the plains, home to nearly half of Nepal's 26.4 million people.

"Elections are not possible under the existing situation of continuing violence. We will go ahead with our planned protests," said Upendra Yadav, the chief of the Forum, which organised some of the biggest protests last year.

The Madheshi people, linguistically and ethnically closer to the Indians living across the border than to the people from Nepal's hills, have long complained of discrimination in terms of government jobs and seats in parliament.

Analysts say a new government would have to be formed after the elections, to oversee the drawing up of a new constitution and prepare for national elections for a new parliament.

In the meantime the constituent assembly could also function as a national legislature, said constitutional expert Bhimarjun Acharya. "But how the new government will be formed is not clear," he said.

Information and Communications Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara, a Maoist nominee, said the make-up of a new government would either be decided by the assembly or through a consensus among political parties.

"We have not come to that yet," Mahara said. (Writing by Simon Denyer; editing by Roger Crabb)

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