Voting begins in Nepal by-election to fill six assembly seats

Voting begins in Nepal by-election to fill six assembly seats Kathmandu - Voting began Friday in by-elections to fill six vacant seats in Nepal's Constituent Assembly in contests seen as a test of the Maoists' popularity. Just more than 444,000 citizens were eligible to cast their ballots, deciding who among 139 candidates, including 10 women, would become members of the assembly, which is Nepal's interim legislature and has also been tasked with drafting a new constitution.

The election is seen as a test of Maoist popularity since the former revolutionaries formed a coalition government last year.

The Maoists emerged as the single largest party in the 601-member assembly after elections in April 2008, two years after giving up their armed insurgency.

The Maoists have, however, come under growing criticism from members of their coalition as well as the opposition Nepali Congress who accuse them of continuing violence, intimidation and extortion.

Election officials said polling stations opened at 8 am (0345 GMT) in five districts in western and eastern Nepal.

Voting was taking place in Rolpa, Kaski and Kanchanpur in western Nepal and two constituencies in the Morang district and one in the Dhanusha district in eastern Nepal.

People began queuing early to cast their votes at several polling stations and the voting had been largely peaceful so far, Nepal's Election Commission said.

For the first time in Nepal, all 490 polling stations in the six constituencies were using electronic voting machines .

Security was tightened in all constituencies with hundreds of extra security personnel deployed, the government said.

International borders with India in the Morang, Dhanusha and Kanchanpur districts were also sealed to prevent cross-border crime during voting. (dpa)