Nepal takes tenuous step to democracy

A recent cover of the Nepali newsmagazine Himal features a local calendar turned to April 10 and a punch line from a Nepali poem, "Ek Jug Ma Ek Din," which roughly translates to "One Day In a Century."

That's because Nepal, a tiny impoverished South Asian nation of 28 million, holds a historic national election on Thursday. More than half of the nation is expected to turn out to elect 601 people who will draft a constitution and define the nation's future.

It is a future that the Nepali people desperately hope will improve on the recent past. Over the past decade, they have endured a Maoist insurgency that claimed more than 14,000 lives, witnessed the massacre of a beloved king and his entire family, and watched another 500 countrymen die in protests as political control has lurched between an unpopular king and a grasping collection of political parties.

It is no wonder that Nepalis are placing high hopes on the members of the constituent assembly who will be elected this week. The assembly is merely expected to decide the future role of the monarchy and establish a stable, democratic government that ensures all political parties, ethnic groups and classes are represented.

According to the Election Commission of Nepal, 5,998 candidates, most of them belonging to 54 political parties, are running for 601 seats in the constituent assembly. They include 367 women and Madhesis from the southern plain, ethnic Janajatis, low-caste people known as Dalits, candidates from so-called "backward regions" and many others. Twenty-six members will be nominated by the prime minister.

For many Westerners, who love the exotic bustle of Katmandu, the capital, and trekking in the Himalayas, Nepal evokes the image of Shangri-la, a mythical utopia. But its history has been replete with bloodshed and turmoil.

A landlocked country about the size of Arkansas that sits between giants, China and India, Nepal is the oldest country in South Asia and one of the oldest monarchies in the world. But it is unlikely to remain a kingdom for long. The monarchy is suspended at the moment, and the constituent assembly may decide to do away with it altogether.

Nepal's experiment with democracy started in 1950 when the Rana oligarchy, which had ruled Nepal for more than a century, was ousted. India had brokered a deal between the king and an agitating Nepali Congress Party.

The democratic transition did not last even for a decade. In 1959, the next king suspended the parliament and imposed the authoritarian Panchayat system that ruled Nepal for 30 years. B.P. Koirala, the first democratically elected prime minister, was put behind bars.

By early 1990, the Nepali Congress party and leftist parties formed an alliance and conducted nationwide protests against the Panchayat regime. In the spring of 1990, following the deaths of more than 60 Nepalis and the arrests of several political leaders, King Birendra lifted the ban on political parties, paving the way for an interim government, which was given the task of drafting a constitution and holding parliamentary elections.

But just as it seemed that Nepal was set to earn its image as a tranquil Himalayan paradise, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, inspired by China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, launched a "people's war."

Initially, no one in Nepal paid much attention. But, owing to the country's abject poverty and the constant bickering among the political parties, Nepalis grew increasingly dissatisfied. The Maoists soon gained adherents and morphed into a formidable band of guerillas.

As the Maoist insurgency grew to ravage the country, shocking news made headlines around the world: On June 1, 2001, the Nepali crown prince shot and killed his parents, his siblings and himself in the royal palace.

Crown Prince Dipendra was said to have been upset with his parents' refusal to accept his choice of wife, but any number of conspiracy theories continue to swirl throughout the country. Following the carnage, King Birendra's brother, Gyanendra, who many Nepalis believe had a hand in the massacre, inherited the throne.

In early 2005, when the Maoist insurgency was at its apogee, King Gyanendra dismissed the parliament, declared a state of emergency, suspended basic rights and assumed executive power, ostensibly to quash the rebels.

The royal takeover -- as it's often called -- led to overwhelming public support for Nepal's political parties and further tarnished the image of an already unpopular king.

Ironically, the king's clumsy attempt to seize total power drove the previously underground Maoists and six political parties into a coalition aimed at overthrowing him. In a surprising turn of events, the Maoists were ready to give up their arms and vie for power through the political system.

The rebels and the parliamentary parties eventually signed an agreement to carry out peaceful protests against the king's rule. In April 2006, King Gyanendra was forced to step down.

The streets of Katmandu were full of jubilant Nepalis, celebrating the downfall of the king while heaving a collective sigh of relief that the bloody, decade-long rebellion was at an end. The parliament was reinstated, and the respected octogenarian leader Girija Prasad Koirala, who had been prime minister during most of Nepal's democratic periods, was appointed the head of an interim government.

Over the next two years, though, sporadic violences erupted as splinter groups tried to jeopardize the peace process and disrupt the elections, which were postponed twice. So on April 13, as the results of Thursday's elections will be trickling in, Nepalis will celebrate what is sure to be an uncertain New Year: 2065.

Deepak Adhikari, a reporter for Nepal Weekly, is spending the next five months working at the Post-Gazette as an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow ( , 412- 263-3909). First Published April 6, 2008 7:30 AM


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