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Nepal in Crisis


Despite international pleas to restore democracy, King Gyanandra Bir Bikran Shah of Nepal has moved to consolidate his grip on power, calling instead for municipal elections that most opposition parties plan to boycott.

Many Nepal observers who have seen the Himalayan nation abandon its constitutional monarchy since King Gyanandra assumed absolute power in 2002 question the motives behind the municipal elections, scheduled for February 8th.

The king ascended to the throne in 2001. The following year, he dissolved the civilian government, accusing it of failing to deal with the country's Maoist insurgency. Last February, he declared a state of emergency and suspended most civil liberties, including freedom of speech and assembly. This move cost Nepal, a relatively poor country, both tourism and international aid dollars.

The Maoist Insurgency

The Maoist insurgency, launched in 1996 to establish a communist state, enjoys particular support in rural areas with politically and economically disenfranchised populations. According to United Nations estimates, the insurgency has claimed more than 10-thousand lives. Sporadic clashes continue despite a unilateral ceasefire declared by the Maoists earlier this month. More recently, the rebels joined forces with a seven-party opposition alliance to restore Nepal's 1990 constitutional monarchy.

Reviving the Past

But King Gyanandra has ignored the Maoist ceasefire, saying free and fair elections can be conducted only if violence is renounced."

Consequently, Teresita Schaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says the municipal elections announced by the king should not be confused for real democracy. She suspects that he wants to revive an abolished system of local councils, or Panchayats.

"The Panchayat system meant that local authorities, or 'Panchayats' as they are called, were elected on a non-party basis. Basically, that's the kind of thing that this king is trying to restore. I'm not saying the Panchayats are bad. But please don't confuse them with broad popular participation in the government."

Some analysts agree. They say the king wants to turn back the clock to 1962, when the partyless system was first introduced in Nepal, making his father, King Mahendra, absolute ruler.

Tara Niraula, a South Asia Analyst at Columbia University in New York, says the Nepali people will never allow this to happen. "They will basically boycott. For example, the seven-party alliance of opposition parties has already said it will boycott the elections, which basically means that the elections will have no meaning at all."

Options for a King

Analyst Christine Fair of the United States Institute of Peace in Washington says the king's options are limited, although he may decide to pursue a divide and conquer strategy.

“There is a considerable amount of discord within the various parties. So there may be some space for the king to try to peel-off some of the parties that have the most to lose in the alliance, or the parties that are most disconcerted by tacitly and implicitly working with the Maoists. So, there may be some room where he can pick-off some parties like the Nepali Congress Democratic party. But I actually think his maneuvering room is quite low."

Most Nepal watchers say the king still has the option of using the Royal Nepalese Army, R.N.A. to wage a military campaign against the Maoist rebels. Some, including Christine Fair of the United States Institute of Peace, say that, by not reciprocating their unilateral ceasefire or talking to the country's democratic forces, King Gyanandra risks legitimizing the Maoists.

But most experts agree that violence in Nepal will not escalate any time soon, and see a glimmer of hope in the mediation efforts pursued by neighboring India to help restore democracy in Nepal.

International Pressure

Columbia University's Tara Niraula says the United States and the European Union are also exerting pressure to spur King Gyanandra to restore democracy. He adds, “The United States suspended its military assistance to Nepal. India has done the same thing. The United Kingdom has done the same thing. And I think that's going to put a lot of pressure on the king because he cannot go on for long when he knows that the majority of the Nepali people are not on his side."

But many Nepal observers say outside pressure has failed. And recent reports indicate that the Nepalese Army is receiving some military supplies from China and training from Pakistan.

Teresita Schaffer of the Center for International and Strategic Studies suspects King Gyanandra will not respond to further outside pressure. She says, “I think he believes that, at the end of the day, he will be able to command the support of the international community because they will see the Maoists as the only alternative and a much worse one."

Despite continued calls on the domestic and international scenes for a restoration of democracy, most analysts agree that Nepal's problems will not be resolved in the short-term. And some Nepal observers say February's municipal elections are not the answer, given a long history of broken promises by the Hindu monarchy.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.

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