Nepal election in shambles as Maoists claim fraud, reject result

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal's powerful Maoist leader and former guerrilla chief Prachanda said on Thursday he did not accept the results of an election his party appeared to be losing, throwing the Himalayan nation into a fresh political crisis.

Nepal has languished in political deadlock since the Maoists laid down arms seven years ago, with six governments failing to forge a constitution for the new republic that emerged after a decade-long civil war.

Nepal's giant neighbours, India and China, as well as Western donors, have grown increasingly concerned about the prolonged struggle to build a stable nation to replace a centuries-old monarchy.

They fear that without effective government, the poor country of nearly 27 million people, which is dependent on tourism, remittances and aid, is becoming a haven for militants and criminal gangs.

Alleging ballot-box fraud, the Maoist leader and former rebel chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal - better known by his war nom de guerre Prachanda - said authorities must immediately stop counting the votes cast in Tuesday's election.

He told reporters ballot boxes were taken away and hidden for several hours, and ballot papers were stuffed or swapped.

"We want an immediate end of vote counting and a review of the whole process of the election," Prachanda said. He did not say what action he would take if he was not heeded and it was not clear if his party would launch street protests.

Nearly 100 Maoist supporters and former fighters pumped their fists in the air and shouted "we are ready to fight" as Prachanda spoke to the media at his party's main office in an upmarket area of the capital, Kathmandu.

The Election Commission rejected Prachanda's demand and said all parties should respect the people's verdict in the election, called to choose a new constitutional assembly.

"SHOW RESTRAINT"

The Maoists, whose revolt was instrumental in the overthrow of Nepal's monarchy, emerged as the single-largest party the last time the country voted, in 2008.

But early trends from Tuesday's vote showed their party in third place in 140 of 240 seats that will be decided under the first-past-the post system, behind the centrist Nepali Congress and the United Marxist Leninist party. Counting for another 335 seats, which will be decided under the proportionate system, is expected to be completed in a week.

An estimated 70 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots and the election was largely seen as free and fair.

"I urge all political parties, media, and observers to show restraint until the results from the counting come," said Chief Election Commissioner Neel Kantha Uprety.

European Union observers said voting had been conducted in "an orderly and generally calm atmosphere".

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who led a separate monitoring team, said he was very disappointed to hear that the Maoists had rejected the count and he called on them to respect the will of the electorate.

"They must refrain from violent protest, and I urge them to allow the electoral process to continue," Carter said in a statement.

The ballot is for an assembly with parliament-like powers to draft a constitution aimed at ending the instability that has held Nepal's economy back.

Prachanda, whose name means "fierce one", lost one of the two seats he was contesting, the Election Commission said. He came third in a constituency in Kathmandu but was leading in another seat in southeast Nepal, it said.

Prachanda has faced accusations that he strayed from the leftist ideals of the revolution since joining the political mainstream, moving from a life in the jungle during the insurgency to a mansion in Kathmandu.

The high turnout fanned hope for change despite the failure of the previous attempt to draw up a constitution after the 2008 election, when political groups were unable to agree on the form of government and the number of states the ethnically diverse nation should be divided into.

(Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Robert Birsel)