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Role for kings in Asia's democracies

Embattled Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra has called for elections Sunday as crowds urge the king to step in.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 2006


As embattled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra digs in his heels against a strident street campaign to oust him, opposition leaders are turning to Thailand's final arbiter.

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Not the Constitutional Court, which batted away a petition to probe Mr. Thaksin's alleged misdemeanors. The ballot box is also mistrusted: Opposition parties are boycotting Sunday's parliamentary elections. Instead, protesters are turning to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand's revered constitutional monarch, in the hopes he will urge Thaksin to step aside.

Thailand's political crisis has thrown a spotlight on democratic rule in Asia's other surviving monarchies. In Nepal, a 14-year experiment with multiparty democracy was suspended last year by its king, who is accused of seeking absolute powers. By contrast, Bhutan's king has set a deadline of 2008 for the creation of an elected parliament, and his own abdication.

Observers say monarchs in Asia's emerging democracies have provided a check against political extremes, though their presence may also slow the building of other constitutional checks and balances. But that downside may be unavoidable in the short term, while institutions slowly take root.

"Our Supreme Court [in Nepal] has been there for the last 50 years. But the monarchy has been there for nearly 300 years. We're talking about institutions, and they have their own norms," says Tara Bahadur Thapa, Nepal's ambassador to Bangkok.

Last February, King Gyanendra dismissed the government and assumed direct rule in the face of a growing Maoist insurgency. Political leaders called it a ruse to snuff out democracy. The resulting standoff and lingering shock from the palace massacre in 2001 that killed the previous king have raised doubts about the institution's survival.

Gyanendra has pledged to restore parliamentary rule within three years.

Analysts say his dictatorial rule has eroded trust in the monarchy, making it harder for any king to play a balancing role in Nepal's fractured society.

However, opinion polls don't suggest the nation is ready for a republic, says Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times. "People distinguish between the king personally and the constitutional monarchy. They still say we need a monarchy, but they don't like the way it's going under the current king."

In Thailand, calls for royal intervention in politics have echoed for months, galvanized by opposition to Thaksin and the tax-free sale of his family-owned media group to foreign investors on Jan. 23. Tens of thousands have protested in Bangkok against the takeover and Thaksin's ethical conduct.

Protesters want the king to appoint an interim replacement to Thaksin. So far, their pleas have gone unheeded; palace courtiers have instead urged dialogue and compromise. But the calls grow louder, day by day, as does the heated rhetoric across the political divide.

"If this issue drags on, we can't control the violence and people will die. Then finally we need someone to end the crisis - sooner or later, the king has to intervene," says Sen. Chermsak Pinthong, who backs a royal intervention.