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
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
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
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
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