The political situation in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal grows increasingly chaotic. Local municipal elections recently called by King Gyanendra, who assumed direct rule after sacking the prime minister and his Cabinet a year ago, had a voter turnout of just 22 percent, abnormally low for that country. No candidates ran for more than half of the some 4,000 posts up for election.
The seven main political parties in that country boycotted the polls in opposition to an election being held under the direct rule of the king, and the Maoist faction of the Nepal Communist Party, which has been waging an armed insurgency against the government, carried out terrorist attacks against candidates in an attempt to derail participation. Clashes with the armed forces reportedly resulted in deaths. Many people didn’t vote because of their disappointment with the king. Thus the Nepalese government’s claim that the elections were successful was far from the truth.
Democratization in Nepal had advanced during the reign of King Birendra, who, in response to a movement for democracy, permitted a multiparty system in 1990. The Nepal Communist Party-United Marxists and Leninists headed a government formed in 1994. In 2001, however, the situation changed dramatically when King Birendra and other members of the royal family were assassinated by Crown Prince Dipendra. King Gyanendra then ascended to the throne, but suspicions that he was linked somehow to the assassinations have not dissipated. The people’s distrust persists.
King Gyanendra described the recent local elections as the first stage in a process of democratization and has promised to hold a general election by the spring of next year. As a result of the virtual failure of the local elections, though, the political situation is bound to become even more tense, because the seven main parties and the Maoists seem most likely to step up their movements against the king.
In February of last year King Gyanendra declared a state of emergency in what was virtually a coup d’etat aimed at seizing power. Leading politicians opposed to the king were arrested en masse, and freedom of speech was repressed. The king’s objective, it seems, was to intervene in politics. The Nepalese Constitution stipulates that the king is the symbol of the state and the unity of the people. He does have the power to declare a state of emergency and assume supreme command, but only on the advice and agreement of the Cabinet. Political parties boycotted the local polls because they saw the king’s unilateral implementation of elections as a violation of the constitution.
In an effort to resist the absolute power by the king, the mainstream political parties last November reversed policy and agreed with the Maoist faction to, among other things, implement an election for a constituent assembly. Although a gap in thinking exists between the main political parties, which recognize the constitutional monarchy, and the Maoists, who want to overthrow it, both sides agreed that the current king should be overthrown. The virtual failure of the recent local elections no doubt has encouraged both sides. Depending on developments from hereon, the possibility of the situation leading to the collapse of the monarchical system cannot be discarded.
Even as opposition to the king increases, widespread distrust of the main political parties is mounting due to rampant corruption within their ranks and internal conflicts. Meanwhile, the Maoists’ armed insurgency has terrorized the people. Nepal faces a three-cornered deadlock.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. Because of the long-running political instability and state of civil war, its tourist industry — an important source of foreign currency — has suffered a heavy blow. The number of Japanese tourists has declined to about half of previous levels.
India, which has considerable influence over Nepal, is reported to be increasingly critical of King Gyanendra. However, the king has been dodging censure and, instead, leaning toward China in his search for weapons assistance. This has provoked concerns in other countries, including Japan, which is the largest provider of assistance to Nepal.
The Nepalese people are reportedly showing growing signs of fatigue with the continuing instability. The international community is watching the situation in Nepal in the hope that King Gyanendra will abandon his hardline absolute rule and, through dialogue with the political parties, restore genuine multiparty democracy to his country.
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