Monarchy gone, but no consensus on government

As Nepal's last King, Gyanendra, leaves the Narayanhiti Royal Palace in Kathmandu, ending a 240-year-old dynasty and paving the way for the emergence of a republic, Nepal’s political parties have fallen on each other in a squabble for power. Days of debate and discussions among the parties, including the rebellious communists, have resulted in little more than confusion about the formation of a stable government.

Initially the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which led a bloody decades-long revolution that killed more than 12,500 people, wanted it all, demanding both the post of President and Prime Minister in the coalition government. The Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, more popularly known as Prachanda, made it clear that the communists would take the top posts until a rebellion by the other parties in the 601-member Nepal Constituent Assembly drove them into retreat and spared the post of president. Nonetheless, shut out of claiming the post, the Maoists now want the presidency reduced to a non-political entity.

Nepal, sandwiched between India and Tibet, regarded romantically in the west as an exotic Asian kingdom and the focus for generations of hippie backpackers, has been the focus of a vicious civil war that started in 1996 when the communists set out to establish a People’s Republic of Nepal. The resulting conflict put a stop to any attempts at rural development by a largely corrupt government. An estimated 4,500 people were killed by the Maosts and 8,200 by the government, with as many as 100,000 to 150,000 internally displaced as a result of the conflict.

In the middle of that, Gyanendra gained the throne after a bloody massacre in the royal palace in June 2001 when Crown Prince Dipendra murdered the former king, Birendra Vikram Shah, and his close relatives, then shot himself in the head and lived just long enough to raise the spectre that if he survived, he would become king. But Gyanendra was never accepted by most Nepalis, partly because many suspected him of being behind the killing of the popular Birendra.

Many of Gyanendra’s decisions made him more vulnerable, particularly his dismissal of the government to take absolute control in 2002, calling it corrupt and ineffective, which it was, but he was unable to do any better. He was forced to reinstate parliament amid demonstrations by tens of thousands of people as well as protests and strikes that crippled the economy. Thus the dynasty, shaped by King Prithivi Narayan Shah in 1768 and once regarded as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, came to an end when the parliament declared the country a federal democratic republic on May 28. The palace will now become a museum.

As many as 17.5 million of the 26 million Nepalis went to the polls on April 10, after two postponements. The new constituent assembly, to serve for two years, is to draft a new constitution. Despite the fact that Maoism as practiced in China has been discarded as unworkable, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) finished first, with 220 of the 575 elected seats, followed by the Nepali Congress with 110 and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) with 103.

Although his party now holds fewer than 40 percent of the seats, Prachanda, in a May 30 interview, told local media that "Our party deserves both the posts of President and Prime Minister. Losers in the Constituent Assembly polls cannot get these posts."

But the other political parties were not in the mood to buy the theory. The Nepali Congress leaders argued that as the largest political party, the Maoists have the legitimate claim to form the next government, but that it should share one top post with the coalition.

The Maoists picked as possible candidates for president the veteran Communist leader. Sahana Pradhan, the first foreign minister in the new government; Ram Raja Prasad Singh, a veteran pro-republic leader; Nara Bahadur Karmacharya, another veteran communist leader; Padma Ratna Tuladhar, a former Nepalese politician human rights activist and Devendra Raj Pandey, a human rights and peace activist. They however did not forget to mention that Prachanda must be elevated as the first prime minister, with executive power.

Speaking to Asia Sentinel, a Maoist sympathizer argued that Prachanda has “every right to demand the lion's share of power” as his party had emerged as the largest. He added, "The Nepali Congress, more particularly the interim government head Girija Prasad Koirala should vacate power immediately to the Maoists. After all, Koirala enjoyed the power of prime minister five times, and now he should not cling on to the seat."

Meanwhile, there were rumors that the current prime minister, GP Koirala had been proposed as the first president. That was immediately shot down by Prachanda himself, who said he wouldn’t accept Koirala, whom he called a grand national figure, because of his age and fragile health, but not one who could serve as president.

"Besides, he has been in power for long and if he is given the post (President) there is a possibility of two power centres in the government," asserted the Maoist leader.

The Marxist-Leninist communists meanwhile argued that while a “non-member (of the Constituent Assembly) could become the President,” the first one should be elected and able to “acknowledge the essence behind national unity, freedom and sovereignty, according to the Marxist-Leninist General Secretary Jhalanath Khanal.

"It was perhaps easier for Prachanda to dethrone the king, but running a government will be a more challenging task for the man, who has emerged as a new epicenter of power in Nepal," a Kathmandu based political analyst said in an interview.

The analyst, who requested anonymity, added, "Making Nepal a country of prosperity, where one-third of the populace lives in acute poverty without access to education and health care, will be his immediate challenge."

Given the squabbling over formation of the government, he added, the political leadership, including Prachanda, are ignoring the real issues – the long-exploited Nepalis who supported the Maoists to depose the king, but who do not in return deserve a dictator.

Amid the confusion, Rising Nepal, a prominent Kathmandu newspaper, commented that “with the formal goodbye to the monarchy, people now have high hopes that the government of a republican Nepal will bring about positive changes and improvement in their daily lives. The monarchy was the patron of an exploitative feudal system, which only protected and served the interests of the feudal, elite and upper class people. It was futile to expect any change in the lives of the people during the old dispensation. This was one of the reasons why the people overwhelmingly supported the struggle and fight against the monarchy,"

In the meantime, Gyanendra said he would remain in Nepal and would live as a civilian after his abdication.