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The rocky road to democracy

Elections in Nepal this week were supposed to help the country back to democracy. But Venu Menon reports the country is still in a perilous state

Marred by fatalities, a low turnout, an opposition boycott and rebel attacks on candidates, this week’s municipal elections left authorities in Nepal wondering whether they were vindicated in pressing ahead with the poll, the first in seven years.

For King Gyanendra, who sacked an elected government and seized direct control on February last year, the election signalled his commitment to restore democracy to the Himalayan kingdom. His royal-appointed government announced the local poll as a precursor to parliamentary elections next year.

However, the opposition parties, which boycotted the poll, saw it as part of a process to consolidate royal rule. Most voters stayed home fearing reprisals from Maoist rebels or because they were cynical about the outcome.

The government was criticised for refusing to participate in a rebel-initiated truce that brought a pause in the violence which has claimed 10,000 lives and led to human rights violations by both sides, prompting the UN Human Rights Commission to open an office in Kathmandu.

Last month, the Maoists ended the unilateral ceasefire and stepped up attacks on government troops, resuming their decade-long insurgency targeting the monarchy.

Gyanendra has manoeuvred himself into a corner. The municipal poll set the palace at odds with the opposition parties and the rebels, who teamed up to isolate the king.

The rebels enforced a seven-day nationwide strike which scuttled the election even before it got under way.

Engaged in a battle on two fronts, Gyanendra was now looking to shore up his democratic credentials by the smooth conduct of the election.

Nepal has come under close international scrutiny since Gyanendra dissolved parliament, imposed emergency rule and took on executive powers.

A flurry of diplomatic activity followed, with the United States, Britain and India mounting pressure on the palace to restore the country to democratic rule. But China and Pakistan opted not to intervene in their neighbour’s internal affairs.

The Nepalese government is recalcitrant in the face of US pressure to reconcile with the opposition parties. America does not want to see a Maoist take-over in Nepal. For the moment, the three forces involved in the power struggle – the palace, the opposition parties and the rebels – are not buckling under international pressure.

Washington was alarmed when the seven opposition groups shook hands with the rebels after signing a 12-point memorandum of understanding in Delhi. It marked a low point for Western diplomatic efforts to effect a reconciliation between the monarchy and Nepal’s democratic forces.The deal made India a key arbiter in the political crisis.

Nepalese public opinion has questioned India’s intentions in the past, and some suspect that despite officially declaring the Maoist rebels as terrorists, Delhi is coddling them. India has traditionally supported the notion of a constitutional monarchy overseeing multiparty democracy in Nepal.

At critical historical junctures, Delhi has helped to sustain or undermine the monarchy in Kathmandu, fuelling speculation that India prefers a pliant neighbour it can control.

The present crisis dates back to June 2001, when Nepal plunged into chaos after King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev and his heirs were killed in a palace massacre. Gyanendra, the king’s brother, was enthroned, and consolidated his position, with the help of a loyal military. Citing the terrorist threat from the Maoists, he declared a state of emergency in November 2001.

Gyanendra’s decision had a grim precedent: his father, King Mahendra, sacked an elected government and invoked emergency powers in 1960. Mahendra snuffed out an insipient democracy to wrest absolute power for the monarchy. It was 30 years before multiparty democracy was restored.

His democratic credentials on test, Gyanendra projected this week’s poll as an important milestone on the road map to democracy. But with the opposition parties opting out and the bulk of the voters staying indoors, the election turned out to be a no-show.

Gyanendra now needs a breakthrough on the dual platforms of peace and democracy. He also needs to worry about an ailing economy. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world with a GNP per capita of just US $ 170.26 ( $250). The economy has been hard hit by a drop in tourism.

The players in the political crisis must adopt more flexible positions . The Maoists are calling for an elected constituent assembly, which would draft a new constitution making it possible to abolish the monarchy. Nepal’s constitution recognises a constitutional monarchy within a multiparty parliamentary democracy.

The opposition alliance, spearheaded by the two largest political parties, the Nepali Congress and the Nepal Communist Party, is seeking the restoration of parliament, dissolved by Gyanendra in 2002.The rebels insist the opposition parties must abandon their allegiance to a constitutional monarchy as a pre-condition to collaboration.

The opposition parties want the Maoists to commit to a multiparty system and the restoration of parliament.

With reciprocal concessions in place and the rebels willing to soften their stand on the abolition of the monarchy, the opposition alliance is upbeat about a way out of the impasse.

With the rebels in firm control of the countryside and government troops packing superior fire power, neither side is poised for a decisive victory.

Consensus is key to ending the crisis in Nepal. The opposition parties and the rebels have sorted out their differences . But if King Gyanendra is not part of the mix, the
stalemate could drag on, pushing Nepal to the brink of civil war.

The New Zealand Herald * Saturday, February 11,2006



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