Fate of Nepal's monarchy linked to polls

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2008, 12:00am

In a sign of how embattled the 239-year old monarchy has become, there are only two parties willing to openly support the king in tomorrow's poll - and one is led by a Japanese-Nepali tourism entrepreneur.

Takashi Miyahara became a Nepali citizen through marriage and formed the Nepal National Development Party a year ago. He wants to see the Himalayan nation retain a 'symbolic' monarchy.

'Young people say, 'Republic, republic', but I think it is confusing,' said Mr Miyahara. 'For Nepal, it's better to keep a ceremonial king and a parliamentary system.'

The only other overtly pro-palace party is the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (Nepal), led by the home minister of King Gyanendra's brief rule. Several other smaller traditionally royalist parties have kept silent on the monarchy issue during campaigning.

While Nepal's kings have traditionally been considered incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, 60-year-old former businessman Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev is a controversial figure.

He wore the crown briefly as a boy, when his grandfather fled to India in 1950, and became king again in 2001, after a massacre at the palace killed 11 members of the royal family.

In 2005, with a civil war raging in the countryside, he seized control of Nepal, jailing critics and censoring media. But 14 months later, huge protests forced him to hand power back to political leaders whose squabbling has seen more than a dozen governments since 1991.

Shrish Shumsher J.B. Rana, a former minister of information and communication and a monarchist, said the movement against King Gyanendra had less to do with his takeover than with the widely held belief among Nepalis that he was behind the royal massacre.

'He became unpopular the day he became king ... many people still believe that Gyanendra killed the king,' Mr Rana said.

The official explanation was that a drunken Prince Dipendra shot dead his family because his mother did not approve of the woman he wanted to marry. Whatever the truth, the issue of the monarchy has become a rallying point for political parties.

Tomorrow's vote will elect a special assembly and one of its first tasks will be to ratify an in-principle decision to abolish the monarchy.

But observers say the king probably will not have to pack up the palace in a hurry. The counting could take weeks or even months to yield a result and, even when the Constituent Assembly does find a hall big enough for its 601 members, decisions need a unanimous vote, so even one royalist could stall the abolition of the monarchy. After two failed votes, a two-thirds majority will be considered.

But despite the pressure from political leaders and Kathmandu intellectuals to oust the king, there is considerable public support. A survey of 3,000 people in January found 49 per cent supported the monarchy, even if few liked Gyanendra as a king.

'I think that opinion will be reflected in the poll or afterwards,' said Mr Rana. 'The king is the guardian of the constitution and the symbol of national unity.'

Recent political moves have chipped away at the monarchy's power. The interim parliament decided the king must pay tax and has appropriated several royal estates.

The government also ordered the king's head removed from all currency, but production had started. The royal image was covered with a rhododendron flower, but the watermark still remains.

The symbolism is powerful: King Gyanendra might be on the way out, but Nepal's oldest institution is not gone yet.