NAGARKOT, Nepal -- By the millions, they walked for hours across the highest mountains in the world, then stood for hours more in the baking sun, occasionally braving fist fights, death threats and fear -- all to cast a ballot that would help usher democracy into their Himalayan kingdom.
As the sun set last evening on the first real day of democracy for Nepalese in more than 30 years, many of them refused to go home. Instead, they helped police escort ballot boxes on hours-long treks to town centers, where they gathered in clusters throughout the night to follow the count, watching and waiting to see the final results of Nepal's long and sometimes bloody march toward freedom.
Tens of thousands of soldiers and riot police were deployed last night outside those centers and in sensitive districts throughout the country. The balloting in at least 21 of thenation's 13,707 voting booths had to be suspended when violence erupted in grenade-throwing, knife fights and punches between rival political groups.
But, with more than 60 observers representing 20 nations deployed nationwide, it was clear that Nepal had successfully staged its first free and fair elections in three decades.
"No matter which party comes to power tomorrow, democracy already won today," said Sharma Bishnu Kanta, the chief poll officer in Nagarkot, a mountaintop village 6,000 feethigh and so remote that Mr. Kanta had to carry his ballot box for three hours across terraced mountainsides to reach the nearest counting center. So isolated are most of the polling stations, some accessible only by helicopter or four-day hike, that results may not be known until the end of this week. Clear trends in the voting also will not emerge until today at the earliest.
The main rivals for control of this landlocked and impoverished nation of 19 million, which has been ruled by a succession of autocratic kings and their prime ministers for all but 10 of its several thousand years, are the veteran politicians of the Nepali Congress Party and a largely young and idealistic Communist alliance campaigning as the United Marxist Leninist Party.
The Congress Party, which governed Nepal during its brief democratic experiment in the 1950s, appeared to have an edge in the voting, in which the turnout was officially estimated at well over 60 percent.
But most Nepalese and Western analysts believe that the party, led by Nepal's interim Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, may fall short of winning a majority in the newly created 205-seat House of Representatives.
Under the parliamentary system created when Nepal's King Birendra approved a new democratic constitution last year, the Congress Party would then have to form a coalition, either with the Communists or with the nation's third political force, a collection of former royalists closely associated with the king, who had ruled over the nation without challenge until a grass-roots, popular rebellion forced him to bow to democratic reform a year ago.
Nepal's Communists, who expect to win at least a quarter of the seats in parliament, represent the only growing Communist movement in the world today, successfully defying the international trend against socialism largely because of Nepal's crushing poverty and its 30-year political time warp.
Many Nepalese analysts fear a backlash from the left, similar to the street clashes that left more than 50 dead a year ago, if leftists feel cut out of power when the new government is formed.