Friday, February 10, 2006

Post-Poll Pointers

The Feb. 8 municipal elections have thrust the conflict in Nepal into a new phase.
International condemnation of the polls being a hollow exercise was not entirely unexpected.
Nor was the barrage of headlines portraying the low turnout as a personal defeat for King Gyanendra. During the run-up, the media did their best to play down the boycott call of the mainstream parties and the Maoists threats of violence.
Whether the palace expected Japan, the largest bilateral donor to Nepal, to fully position itself in the anti-palace camp is unclear. The same could be said of the reversal of the roles of the United States and India. Washington came out with a strongly worded statement against the king and his motives, while New Delhi sounded uncharacteristically conciliatory.
All eyes are now on China. State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan, China's foreign minister until 2003, is scheduled to arrive in Kathmandu next week amid a much-hyped intensification of Beijing's interest in the kingdom's situation.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson's response to a correspondent's question last month has been played up by the mainstream Nepalese opposition parties and the Maoists as evidence of the second thoughts Beijing is having about its open support for the monarchy.
A basic reading of the transcript of the January 24 press conference shows that Nepal figured in a two-part question that also sought details on Saudi King Abdullah's just-concluded visit to China.
Out of the 235 words spokesperson Kong Quan devoted to answering the question, Nepal took up 65. And Nepalis are made to believe that the Chinese government came out with a white paper explaining its changed stance on the kingdom.
No wonder King Gyanendra's government is gearing up for the long haul. Dr. Tulsi Giri, the vice-chairman of the royal cabinet, said the municipal polls strengthened the regime's resolve to go ahead with parliament elections in 15 months' time.
With the Maoists having taken clear steps toward persuading the world of their commitment to competitive democratic politics, the contours of a solution should have become clearer. Reconciliation between the palace and the mainstream parties, for all practical purposes, is out of the question.
Royal advisers probably believe that another shot at wooing the Maoists might not hurt. (Who knows? Maybe the independents and obscure candidates that swept the municipal polls are Maoists.) Privately, royal advisers readily state that they believe King Gyanendra seems more sympathetic to the Maoists' claim to power.
Undoubtedly, public affirmation of such sentiments would bolster the we-told-you-so cries in the mainstream. Nepali Congress and UML leaders remain convinced that the Maoists could not have become such a formidable force without the active support of the palace.
Maila Baje believes there is a deeper – and more benign – reason for the palace's preference for a Maoist-led government: the rebels' firm insistence on a constituent assembly.
King Gyanendra is often depicted as the principal obstacle to a constituent assembly. However, the monarch insisted, in the early months of his reign, that he would agree to such elections if all the political forces reached consensus.
Although Prachanda has offered wildly varying viewpoints in recent interviews, the Maoist supremo seems ready to defer to the people as far as the future of the monarchy is concerned. The Maoists blame America's full backing for the king for their failure to capture total power. The corollary of that reasoning? The king would provide much needed legitimacy to the rebels.
The Sihanouk-Khmer Rouge analogy might not be so far-fetched. In one interview, Prachanda said he would accept the popular verdict even if it goes in favor of a politically active monarchy.
King Gyanendra is as human as the rest of us to make safe predictions of the popular mood – especially in a country seeking a sixth constitution in as many decades.
But he is too experienced not to detect the legacy even an adverse vote would produce. How many monarchs has the world seen who have presided over the abolition of the institution based on a democratic vote.
Here's the rub. King Gyanendra recognizes that inviting the Maoists to lead an interim national government would provide an outlet to the crisis. He also recognizes that Nepal's international stakeholders wouldn't want him to do that.
Eventually, the Indians and Chinese may find a way of living with the Maoists. For the Americans, the rebels are not only communists; they are also terrorists.
Let's brace for the parliamentary polls.