Nepal: the monarch's kingly role at stake

Only 30 years ago Nepal's King Tribhuvan ousted a clan of hereditary prime ministers that had reduced his shah dynasty to figureheads and reasserted absolute rule over an isolated Himalayan kingdom.

This week, by grace of his grandson, Eton-and Harvard-educated King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, Nepal's voters will choose a new political system that will reshape the role of one of the world's few remaining absolute monarchies.

A photo finish outcome, or perceived rigging in the first national referendum in 21 years, could dramatically affect the stability of this tiny country strategically sandwiched between the world's two population giants, China and India.

The choice in the May 2 balloting is ostensibly a procedural decision for Nepal's 7.2 million eligible voters: Should the country have a multiparty political system or one that allows no parties at all. Political parties have been banned for 20 years.

But the referendum is also widely regarded as a choice for or against Western-style parliamentary democracy, with the advocates of political liberalization lined up on the multiparty side. It has sparked an unprecedented volume of political debate, including numerous outbursts of violence in this beautiful but impoverished mountain kingdom of 13.4 million people.

Reuters reported April 29 that 14 people, including four policemen, were injured in a clash between rival factions campaigning for the referendum.

"Before, nobody ever talked politics. There wasn't anything to talk about," says a longtime resident of Katmandu, the capital. "Now the lid is off, and I don't think it can be put back on again."

King Birendra, popularly believed to be a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, called the referendum last May after weeks of violent student-led demonstrations threatened to topple his throne. Sources insist the king realized long before the outbursts that his people were ripe for a change. He closely eyed the downfall of Iran's Pahlavi dynasty and was acutely aware of the dwindling world demand for absolute monarchs.

"The referendum is meant to find out how much change they want -- reforming the existing system or going all the way to this multiparty system," says a palace intimate.

Nepal's one previous experiment with parliamentary democracy began in 1959 with a National Assembly election won by the Nepali Congress Party. It ended abruptly the following year when Birendra's father, King Mahendra, dismissed the country's first and last elected Prime Minister B. P. Koirala, jailed political leaders, and suspended the Constitution.

A new constitution was drawn up in 1962 and amended five years later. It established the current nonparty "panchayat" (assembly) system of representative bodies.

Since then, the only direct elections have been for town and village-level councils.

Proponents assert the panchayat system encourages grass-roots political participation, forges national unity, and provides people with many civic and social services.

Further, they argue, a vote for multiple parties would be a vote for chaos and instability -- an open invitation for foreign powers to meddle in Nepal's affairs and, in effect, a repudiation of the monarchy.

But opponents contend the system is a closed shop -- autocratic, corrupt, inefficient, and intolerant of dissent. They say the King himself wants only a nod from the people to scrap the panchayat system. Whyelse, they argue, would he have put it up to a popular vote?

They also accuse government officials of openly campaigning for the nonparty system, a charge officials deny.

Whatever the outcome of the May 2 referendum, there is a conviction cutting across the entire political spectrum that the monarchy must remain.

"After the referendum there may well be debate on what the powers of the crown will be," says a diplomatic observer. "But there is very little question of the need for the monarchy."

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