Some Nepalis miss king amid frustration with democracy
KATHMANDU: As Nepal prepares to welcome Britain's Prince Harry this weekend, there's a yearning among some Nepalis fed up with the political instability and bureaucratic malaise to bring back the monarchy they abolished nearly a decade ago.
The new constitution that enshrined the country's democratic principles took seven years to craft and still isn't fully enforced. Ethnic protests and energy shortages plague the country. Efforts to rebuild after last year's earthquake have been stalled by red tape.
It is unlikely the monarchy will be restored, but a small and growing number of Nepalis are wondering if the country made the right choice when tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets in 2006, calling on King Gyanendra to give up his authoritarian rule, blaming the monarchy for corruption, economic stagnation and everything that was wrong with the country.
Amid high hopes, the royal system was abolished in favor of a democratically elected parliament that would choose a president. But eight years later, Nepal's fledgling democracy has brought mostly frustration and disappointment, and many would argue that the country is actually worse off.
Inflation has doubled to 12 percent over the past decade, and the country's ranking on Transparency International's corruption index has dropped from 90 in 2004 and 130 last year. The much-desired constitution has generated protests among ethnic groups in the south who have blocked roads that have led to severe shortages of fuel, medicine and other supplies.
"It is natural for people to think about the monarchy since the political parties have failed to deliver on their promises. All the reasons that the king was kicked out for has gotten worse," said Keshab Poudel, editor of the Spotlight newsmagazine in Kathmandu.
The pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal is gaining more support. It won only four seats in 2008 elections, but jumped to 24 seats in 2013 to become the fourth-largest party and part of the coalition government. Their chief, Kamal Thapa, is the deputy prime minister and foreign minister.
"Our main objectives are return of constitutional monarch and reverence back to a Hindu nation. We are already gaining popularity because there is no security or peace in the country and everything is going from bad to worse," Tanka Dhakal, deputy leader of the party. "The idea of getting the monarch back is getting more attractive."
Development work hasn't picked up as hoped and jobs are scarce. There are still rolling blackouts every day and drinking water is available from taps only a couple of hours every few days. An estimated 1,500 people leave daily for jobs in Malaysia or the Mideast.
Recovery from the April 2015 earthquake has been slow, and tens of thousands remain homeless. During his five-day visit starting Saturday, Prince Harry is scheduled to visit areas hit by the disaster, which killed nearly 9,000 and destroyed a million homes.
Some people say the introduction of democracy has only served to spread the wealth among the political elite.
"Right now only the politicians are getting rich while people are getting poor. When the king was in power only a few people were making money," said Narayan Maharjan, a bus driver who was waiting in line for diesel fuel. "Now the leaders, their family members, their secretaries, their aides are all making money and the people get nothing but more suffering."
Others say despite the problems, people at least have a greater say in governing.
"The kings ruled for centuries and they failed. At least now the people get to elect their leader, whether they are good or bad," said Shanti Shrestha, an office worker shopping at a supermarket.
The royal family does, however, have a serious image problem: The former king, Gyanendra, is widely disliked, and his son Paras is even more unpopular.
The older generation in this mostly Hindu nation held the royalty in high esteem, regarding kings as reincarnated Hindu gods who protected the people and country.
But attitudes toward the royalty have changed, particularly after the 2001 royal family massacre, when Prince Dipendra gunned down his father, mother and several family members before killing himself.
Gyanendra, the brother of the slain king, assumed the throne and then declared military rule, suspended press and other freedoms and threw politicians in jail. Massive street protests and general strikes led him to give up power, and in 2008 an elected assembly got rid of the monarchy and turned Nepal into a republic.
Gyanendra and his family now live in a private house in Kathmandu as common citizens protected by a few police officers. He is rarely seen in public except for visits to temples.
His son Paras is believed to be involved in two vehicular homicides but was never arrested or charged. As crown prince, he was regularly involved in nightclub brawls and even beat up his own bodyguard. Recently he was arrested in Thailand on charges of vandalizing an apartment and later possession of drugs.
Still, many think back wistfully on bygone days amid frustration at the lack of hoped-for progress.
"Every day there is news of corruption, we have no electricity ... rivers have turned into sewers, politicians can get away with almost anything now. Democracy has benefited those in power and their own people," said Sundar Tamang, a government office worker. "Life was certainly better and the country more beautiful when the kings were ruling."