Nepal: Next Steps in Democracy Struggle

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During April hundreds of thousands of people came out onto the streets of Nepal in an impressive show of anger against the authoritarian regime of King Gyanendra. In the wake of the king's concessions to the protesters, everyone is asking questions about what will happen next.

The movement that opposed the royal dictatorship was initiated by an alliance of the seven main parties (known as the SPA), and supported by the whole of civil society and virtually all social classes. Would it achieve its objective of removing the king's powers and restoring democracy? What would be the role of the Maoists, who currently control most of the countryside and are able to exert a stranglehold on the urban areas?

The Maoists have said they share the goal of a multi-party democracy, but are clearly in a powerful position to choose precisely when and how they re-enter the political mainstream. And what would the king do? Clearly he was reluctant to abandon his unique position as absolute ruler, the reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and commander in chief of the Royal Nepalese Army.

As far as the last of these are concerned, the king was under massive pressure to recognise the will of the people and permanently abandon his royal dictatorship - either to become a constitutional monarch and to restore parliament, or to step down altogether. In the end he offered to reinstate parliament.

His offer was accepted by the SPA, which called off plans for a monster demonstration in Kathmandu on 25 April. Instead crowds gathered in the streets in jubilant mood, as the king's "climbdown" was taken by many as a victory for democracy.

Whether it proves to be such remains to be seen. The king's advisers will be hoping that old squabbles between the leaders of the various parties will again break out and prove them inept. To this end, Gyanendra will have been cheered by the SPA's decision to nominate G P Koirala - the 84 year old Nepali Congress leader - to take charge, and the fact that squabbles have already started over positions in the cabinet.

The Maoists immediately castigated the decision to accept the king's offer as "a big mistake", and promised to maintain the protests against the old regime, while observing a three month ceasefire. But their "understanding" with the SPA suddenly looked vulnerable, as the latter moved rapidly away from popular protest.

Emergency powers

There is much talk of establishing a constituent assembly and, beyond that, the appointment of an interim government, a revision of the constitution and, eventually, elections - all of which were included in the Maoists' demands. There is certainly hope of a new dispensation, but there is a long way to go before anything like full democratic structures are in place and in the meanwhile the king still holds emergency powers.

In 1990, a mass movement (Jana Andolan) restored the basic elements of a multi-party democracy after 30 years of the Panchayat political regime, in which political parties were officially banned. This resulted in a new constitution, but left the king with emergency powers. The growing republicanism of the democracy movement is partly a response to the existence of these powers. But it is likely that the SPA (and even the Maoists, on the basis of their public statements) would be prepared to accept a monarchy as part of Nepal's political future, on the condition that the monarch is completely subordinate to parliament.

This would mean a new constitution, or a clear interpretation of the existing constitution, in order to avoid the ambiguities that enabled the king to seize power in the first place. Whether these reforms are successfully adopted will partly depend on the willingness of the security forces - the police, the armed police and the Royal Nepalese Army - to accept parliamentary control.

However united the SPA has been in recent weeks, a struggle between the leaderships of the two main parties as to their respective roles is already beginning. The nature of the involvement of the other organisations of civil society - the NGOs, trade unions, journalists, and human rights organisations - in a new constituent assembly is also unclear.

If the leadership of the democracy movement has been largely unified over the last few weeks, it is a precarious alliance and one that has found it immensely difficult in the last few years to present a consistent and principled united front. Now is the time to hold true to the principles of democracy and to the evident will of the people to be rid of the royal dictator, one way or another.


David Seddon is Professor of Development Studies at the University of East Anglia and co-author with Arjun Karki of The People's War in Nepal.