Nepal on edge ahead of polls

National elections – already twice delayed – are scheduled for April. The interim government voted to abolish the monarchy, meeting a key demand of former Maoist rebels.

Mian Ridge
Rickshaw driver: Krishna Khadgi supports the monarchy.

A month after Nepal decided to abolish its monarchy, the country's democratic future is far from secure.

Last month, Nepal's interim government voted to scrap the world's only Hindu monarchy and transform Nepal into a "federal democratic republican state." Though the monarchy will not officially be finished until an elected government is in place, that government will not have the power to reinstate the king.

Analysts say the move constitutes a historic step for Nepal, one of the world's poorest countries. The vote has brought the Maoists – the communist former rebels who waged a decade-long insurgency that killed 13,000 – back into the government. And it has allowed Nepal to schedule key national elections – already twice delayed – for April 10.

But the absence of a fully functioning government is taking a toll. The government has failed to fulfill several commitments, from giving assistance to the victims of the war to sorting out the Maoists' demand that their cadres be integrated into the Army. And in recent months, violence has flared in spots. In the southern plains area known as the Terai, home to more than half of Nepal's 26.4 million people, some 130 people have been killed in protests over the past year. On Monday, at least eight people were injured in a bomb explosion in the center of Kathmandu, where thousands had attended a mass rally at the start of campaigning for the elections.

Generally, Nepalis appear to be anticipating the polls, the country's first in nine years. But some analysts have expressed concern about potential disruption of the vote in the Terai, as well as the possibility of a third delay in voting nationally.

"Elections have to happen – they are the only glue and balm for Nepal," says Kanak Dixit, editor of Himal, a leading magazine. "If we don't make it to elections, the Maoists will become unstable; people in the Terai will agitate. There will be a danger of intercommunal clashes and anarchy."

Nepal's interim government was established in 2006 by the Maoists and Nepal's main political parties after they orchestrated a popular uprising against King Gyanendra and signed a peace agreement. But in September, the Maoists withdrew over their demand that the monarchy be abolished immediately. A crisis ensued, and elections slated for November were canceled.

"Abolishing the monarchy was essential face-saving for the Maoists," says Mr. Dixit. Many politicians who voted to abolish the monarchy had supported it, he says. "But it got the peace process back on track."

In Kathmandu, some Nepalis said they were happy King Gyanendra would soon be jobless. "The king must go," says Ram Hath Ram, who sells roasted peanuts near the palace. "I want freedom from that monarchy."

But Krishna Khadgi, a bicycle rickshaw rider, says he is proud when he pedals passengers past the high walls that hide the palace complex. "Kings are good," he says, "politicians bad. Things should stay as they are."

Disenchantment with the king began in 2001, when crown prince Dipendra shot dead 10 members of the royal family, including his parents, before killing himself. His uncle Gyanendra inherited the crown.

In 2005, as the Maoists stepped up their brutal insurgency, the king – a constitutional monarch with mainly ceremonial powers – dismissed parliament and grabbed absolute power. The insurgency grew more violent; the economy faltered. By the time parliament was restored in 2006, the king, say analysts, was finished.

Politically, he is supported by the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP-Nepal). On Jan. 7, the small party organized a brief rally of a few hundred in a public park.

Ahead of the election, uncertainty surrounds the commitment of some parties to democracy. The Nepali Congress Party, which leads the interim government, is in no hurry to give up its power, argue some analysts. And it is widely believed that the Maoists pulled out of the political process last year over fear of a poor showing at the polls. Few pollsters expect the Maoists to emerge as one of the bigger parties.

Baburam Bhatturai, the Maoist's deputy leader, swears his party is committed to elections this time. "There is no question of us not going for elections," said the bookish-looking Marxist in an interview in his heavily guarded house in Kathmandu.

He added that the government still had commitments to honor before elections – chief among them the rehabilitation of some 31,000 Maoist ex-combatants confined to camps since 2006.

Ian Martin, the head of the United Nations mission in Nepal, warns that work must begin on this issue before elections. "The democratization of the Army and the integration of the Maoist combatants are crucial issues at the heart of the peace process," he says.

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