No easy way out in Nepal

21 April 2006

The crowds got bigger all week, defying a shoot to kill curfew. The king, threatened with the end of  his disastrous rule, tried to hang tough. The fairytale ending, on the colour revolution model, would be the abdication of the king and the triumphant return of democracy.  But this is no fairytale.

Since the Maoist uprising began more than ten years ago,  Nepal has been wracked by a three way power struggle between the constitutional parties, the Maoists and the monarchy. Gyanendra's attempt to marginalise the political parties and defeat the Maoists on the battlefield has failed: its only concrete result was to force the political parties and the Maoists into each others' arms in a joint demand for a constituent assembly last November. A new constitution could lay a firm democratic foundation, but it would require the king to give up his powers, including, critically, control of the army. This the king remains unwilling to do.


Gyanendra  has just  spoken on Nepalese TV, offering to restore parliament and inviting the political parties to choose a prime minister. It is a humiliating climbdown for the king, who has been forced into it by the popular revolt and the highly publicised visit of Karan Singh, the newly appointed Indian envoy, who came to deliver the message that Gyanendra must back down.  The question is what happens now?

Gyanendra's calculation appears to have been that he can still play divide and rule -- that even now, it is not too late to make it up with the political parties and continue to fight the Maoists.  Karan Singh has hailed the king's speech as the concession India was pressing for. But a return of parliament will not resolve Nepal's crisis unless parliament immediately moves to a constituent assembly and a new constitution, as agreed last November.  India was a powerful supporter of the Maoist/party agreement and has openly backed the constituent assembly proposal. But the king, of course, resists: it would mean the end of his powers. If he can stave it off, he will.

What happens now? A return to a three  way power struggle is a recipe for a continuing crisis. If the parties accept the king's peace offering and renegue on their agreement with the Maoists, the war will begin again with renewed ferocity and this time the Maoists will be fighting for total victory. Once once the demonstrations stop, will the king keep his promises? The record is not encouraging. Besides, the success of his strategy depends on the mistaken premise that the Maoists can be defeated on the battlefield. The only lasting solution for Nepal is a political one -- full democracy that includes the Maoists and an end to a feudal monarchy that has so mishandled its rule that it has brought Nepal to its knees.

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