BHAKUNDEBESI VALLEY, Nepal (Reuters) - During their decade-long "people's war," thousands of Nepal's Maoist rebels endured harsh jungle treks, disease and fire fights with troops.
But now their cadres may face tougher nuts to crack -- the ballot box and frail villagers like Saili Bika.
"I don't trust Maoists. They are killers. I have no hopes for these shits," the 68-year-old low caste, barefoot villager said by her mud hut where she eked a living as a part-time tool maker.
Bhakundebesi valley, about two hours drive from Kathmandu, used to be a Maoist bastion. Dozens of police and soldiers were killed here only two years ago in two ambushes, before a peace deal was signed in 2006 and elections were called.
While the Maoists do enjoy some support in this steep, fertile valley, many villagers like Bika will not vote for them in April elections that will draw up a new constitution and appoint a parliament to run one of the world's poorest countries.
The elections, the first in around nine years, are touted as a landmark for Nepal, heralding the abolition of a 240-year-old monarchy and ushering in stability for this nation wedged in between regional superpowers India and China.
The Maoists, whose guerrilla army numbered nearly 20,000 fighters before they gave up arms in 2006, may have huge leverage. The war saw the Maoists control swathes of rural territory. That presence is still felt, and painted hammers and sickle adorn the valley's main road.
But many Nepalis wonder if this disciplined organization hardened by conflict has given up the very violent tactics that even detractors say helped bring issues of social and economic change to a near feudal Nepal.
The Maoists have already said they will have 200 cadres at each polling station in April, sparking worries in rural areas of "booth capturing" -- intimidating villagers into voting for them.
Ten leading editors of Nepal's media last year accused the Maoists of attacking press freedom through a "sinister pattern of intimidation and threats." The statement came after a Maoist union obstructed publication of two leading dailies in Kathmandu.
"I want to urge Maoist leaders to end threats and intimidation of political workers during the elections," Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, who leads the interim government that includes the Maoists, said this month.
The U.S. State Department said in its human rights report this year the Maoists frequently employed "arbitrary and unlawful use of lethal force, including torture and abduction. Violence, extortion, and intimidation continued throughout the year."
The issue divides Nepal. Critics say the Maoists will take power by any means, and have little genuine democratic bent.
Supporters say they are making a painful transition from the jungles to the ballot box, from extreme to centrist politics.
"They are the only party to have something new to say," said Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times,
"But the problem is that extortion, intimidation and violence are ruining their chances at the polls."
In Bhakundebesi valley, many villagers have little fondness for the rebels. They remember them asking for food and forcing children to join their ranks.
"They came, ate, and went. They never paid for anything. Ten people would stay in each house. They would talk among themselves," said villager Gayatri Khanal.
"The Maoists have done nothing for us," she said. But she also had little fondness for other mainstream parties.
Some villagers here said they would vote according to their village leaders, or for the party that offered them a water pump or a new road. In more than a dozen interviews here, there was little enthusiasm for any one party.
"Here, if the election is free and fair, the Maoists will do badly," said Bhagawati Timilsina, a local journalist with two decades experience in the valley. She said many militants went to Kathmandu after the peace deal, and had not returned.
In the current interim parliament the Maoists have about a quarter of seats, given to them after the peace deal. Pollsters, analysts and diplomats say the April vote could give them less seats, making them a weak partner in any coalition.
Ethnic protests over the last year in the Terai, where an autonomy movement sprouted by Madheshi groups, has effectively wiped out the Maoists as a political force in the region, which accounts for nearly half of Nepal's population.
All this could tempt them to influence the results unfairly.
"A major concern is rigging by the Maoists," said a Western diplomat.
Monitors are worried by a lack of police to oversee the election.
"The numbers of police are going to be stretched," said Ian Martin, chief of the United Nations Mission in Nepal
"The Maoists have been the dominant force in much of the country ... A lot depends on the conduct of the cadres."
The party says it is reformed. Villagers said they use less strong-arm tactics and party leaders preach a form of centrist market reforms and help for women, lower castes and ethnic groups -- a platform heard across the political spectrum.
Some Nepalis say their softened rhetoric in recent months -- Maoist leader Prachanda talked about making mountainous Nepal a "Switzerland of Asia" and bringing millions of tourists to the country -- may have gone down well with voters.
In a rundown parliamentary office in Kathmandu, senior Maoist leader Dinanath Sharma said that if "the election is free and fair, we think we should get a majority."
But he added: "We will accept the people's verdict."
There is also genuine support for the Maoists in Nepal's remote villages, most of whom lack water and power.
"I'll vote for Maoists because they are doing good work," said Shanta Khanal, a 26-year-old mother of four children, pointing to a new road being built near her house.
Whatever the tensions, Dixit said problems should be put in perspective.
"No one expected it to be a walk in the park ... and we are finally getting an election which is not about the elite rulers of Kathmandu shuffling the cards."
Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu; Editing by Simon Denyer and Megan Goldin