Monarch's death leaves Nepal's democracy at risk

Friday's murder of a popular king exposes a power vacuum in an already weak system.

Friday's massacre of the Nepalese royal family may have been rooted in a long-brewing family dispute, but it could have the unintended effect of destabilizing this poor Himalayan Hindu kingdom at a dangerous time.

The murder of popular King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, reportedly at the hand of his own son, Crown Prince Dipendra, leaves a power vacuum in the fractious Nepali political scene.

At a time when Communist parties have shut down the democratically elected government from within Parliament, and Maoist insurgents are waging a bloody six-year "People's War" from the rural countryside, there is little to hold Nepal's 11-year experiment with democracy together - except the bickering parliamentary parties themselves.

"Our parties are not committed to the parliamentary system," says Lokraj Baral, political science professor in Kathmandu and former Nepali ambassador to India. "If it continues like this, outside forces may try to come in. People are frustrated with the political parties; that's why they are looking to the Maoists."

But Mr. Baral says he has full faith in democracy itself, and of the people's ability to see the merits of parliamentary democracy beyond the chaos. "I'm not worried about it, because whatever problems we have, time will provide the opportunities to solve them. I don't find any alternative to the present system."

That the death of a constitutional monarch could cause such disarray is a testimony to both the personal stature of the peacemaker king and the weakness of the ruling Nepali Congress Party. Stymied by continual parliamentary maneuvers by the main opposition party, the United Marxist Leninists, and ensnarled by corruption charges, Prime Minister Girija Koirala has been largely unable to govern effectively since the beginning of his term in March 2000. A budget session, planned for next month after a 13-day period of mourning, may be the test of whether Mr. Koirala can convince other parties to set aside their ideological differences.

In the meantime, most analysts in Nepal are keeping a keen eye on Maoist insurgents who now control up to one-third of the countryside. While the Maoists would appear to have every ideological reason to rejoice at the death of a monarch, their official statements thus far have been muted. In a report in the Nepalese language newspaper, Kantipur, Maoist spokesmen said they didn't believe the massacre was a family dispute. They put the blame on "reactionary forces" both inside and outside Nepal.

While the Maoists have called "for the abolition of monarchy, they have never publicly criticized the monarch himself," says Gen. Ashok Mehta, an Indian security analyst based in New Delhi. "I think that is in deference to the respect the monarch has among the people, and also because of the public's perception that it is the government that is corrupt, while the monarch is above all that."

Like many analysts, General Mehta expects most to wait and watch how King Birendra's brother and likely successor, Prince Gyanendra, operates as regent. (The crown prince, who is alleged to have murdered his family after they rejected his choice of a bride, has been declared king but was in a coma after an apparent suicide attempt.)

"The king is the supreme commander of the royal armed forces; the Royal Nepal Army was nurtured by Birendra, and his senior officers were fiercely loyal to him," says Mehta. "Whether his brother can fill that vacuum is, I think, doubtful."

Until then, most Nepalis are left to piece together just what happened when the Shah family came to dinner on Friday night. According to local press reports, the dinner was contentious and Prince Dipendra had become drunk and argumentative. The source of agitation, reportedly, was Dipendra's choice of a bride, Devyani Scindia, niece of an Indian Parliament member and a distant member of the Rana family, which has been a rival of the ruling Shah family.

According to some reports, Dipendra stalked off from dinner and returned with an M-16 rifle, and shot all family members in the room, along with some bodyguards and other guests. Some reports say he thendressed in military fatigues and shot himself. All of this, of course, is based on unofficial sources within the palace. The palace's official spokesman has said only that the king and seven members of his family were killed "accidentally" by a rifle.

Such family drama aside, some Nepali analysts say the key to Nepal's political future rests solely in the hands of its unpopular elected officials.

"How our government will cope with all these challenges, including the Maoists, depends on them," says Dhruba Kumar, a political scientist at the Center for Nepalese Studies in Kathmandu. "Right now, we have politics without governance."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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