Millions of Nepalese on Thursday voted in the second phase of elections for national and provincial assemblies, with many hoping the results will usher in political stability and bring closure to the country's decade-long post-civil war transition.
Thursday's vote took place in the southern regions and capital, Kathmandu, where 80 percent of the population lives. The first phase of the vote was on Sunday in the nation's northern region. Results are expected in the days following the second phase.
Read more: Nepal holds first local election in 20 years
Over both dates, some 15.4 million eligible voters are selecting representatives for 275 seats in the federal parliament and 550 seats in seven provincial assemblies.
The vote in Nepal is a key test for the Himalayan nation, which became a federal republic in 2008. The parliamentary vote is also the first under Nepal's new constitution, which was implemented in 2015. Nepalese cast ballots in 2008 and 2013 for constitutional assemblies, but these were largely focused on implementing the new constitution.
Long-awaited political stability?
The last parliamentary elections were held 18 years ago amid a 10-year-long civil war between the ruling monarchical government and Maoist rebels. The war ended in 2006, but the country has been plagued by short-lived governments.
The major political players in the election include the ruling Nepali Congress, an economically liberal centrist party, and a communist alliance of the Maoist Center party and the Unified Marxist-Leninist Party (UML), currently the largest opposition party. A close outcome has been predicted.
Some analysts believe that the communist alliance will make it difficult for parties to attain parliamentary majorities.Nepal's communist alliances have also struggled with shifting alliances and political infighting over the past years.
The leader of the Maoist Center party, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, previously aligned himself with the Nepali Congress party in 2016 in order to become prime minister. He stepped down from office earlier this year as part of a prearranged deal. Despite the election alliance with the UML, his Maoist party is currently the junior coalition partner of the ruling Nepali Congress.
Violence at the campaign's end
However, the final days of campaigning were marked by violence against political candidates as an alliance of left-wing Marxist parties was threatened by split-off communist groups.
Violent attacks during the political campaign further testified to political instability within the political left.
Turning towards China or India?
The outcome of Nepal's elections could affect the country's foreign policy significantly. Tucked between China and India, Nepal has seen both of its neighbors pushing to invest in the mountainous country.
The current government under the Nepali Congress is considered to be pro-India, whereas the UML favors Chinese investment. The communist party has announced that should it take power, it would hand a hydroelectric project worth $2.5 billion (€2.1 billion) back to China — a project the Nepali Congress had canceled.
The Madhesi minority
The outcome could also influence the domestic situation of the ethnic minority Madhesis, a diverse group of people who live in Nepal's southern lowland region. They would like a stronger voice within the political system, which they feel discriminates against them. Seven Madhesi parties are campaigning as a political bloc.
The Nepali Congress has promised to amend the constitution to further include Madhesis, if the party wins the vote to remain in power.
Other key election campaign issues include economic development, job creation, and investment in education, infrastructure and health care.
Over the past 27 years, Nepal has had 25 governments, none of which have completed a full term since the country's restoration of a multiparty system in 1990. The country signed a peace treaty in 2006, ending its 10-year-long civil war that killed more than 19,000 people.
Additionally, in 2015, Nepal was hit by a devastating earthquake that killed over 9,000 people.
Cristina Burack (dpa, EFE, Reuters), Chase Winter