But the democracy is in a coma

Bijay Aryal

Democracy Day is being observed today, with the King preaching the virtues of democracy in his customary Democracy Day message. In contrast, the major political parties are organising protest rallies against the King’s October 4 (2002) takeover of the executive powers of the State that the 1990 Constitution does not grant him. The parties who had been hoping that the King would hand power back to an all-party government to be formed in consultation with them have been disappointed more than once. His politics of granting audience to them by raising vague expectations of ending the political stalemate and then letting them down has now been a familiar royal device, particularly to throw cold water over their anti-regression movement and put them in a poor public light. Nothing came too of the latest round of Royal audiences to political leaders.

Ironically, Democracy Day has been celebrated even when there has been little democracy, as during the Panchayat, as well as the past 16 months when democracy has been in a coma. It has been part weakness and part naivete of the pro-democracy leaders that they have allowed themselves to be thus used by the Palace. After King Gyanendra’s recent address at the civic reception in Nepalgunj, the political parties, which have been agitating on again and off again for the last 10 months, have started drawing conclusions that the King has taken a determined step back towards active monarchy. On Saturday, they met and concluded that the King has totally rejected constitutional monarchy and expressed a desire to bring back the Panchayat system. They have also decided to intensify their movement beginning today, reminiscent of the start of the 1990 Jana Andolan.

They now see no alternative to "a powerful and effective movement" and have even threatened to embrace the pro-republican sentiment of the students if the King "does not listen to them in time." But those who have believed that the King’s October 4 step was a temporary measure have deluded themselves. His intentions had been fairly clear even before that, as reflected in his interviews to newspapers commenting on the political situation (in itself contrary to the role of a constitutional monarch). In one, he said "It does not matter how long you live, but it matters how you do live." In another he said, unlike his late brother king Birendra, he could not remain a passive spectator to the country’s situation. His interview to TIME magazine and its reiteration in the Nepalgunj address were not therefore surprising.

The King reiterates his "commitment to multiparty system." This is his compulsion, not his choice. In this 21st century, he needs to provide his foreign supporters with a façade of democracy. With the apparent lack of popular support, with the pro-parliamentary parties on the streets against his disdain for the 1990 Constitution and the Maoists continuing their insurgency and still in control of much of the countryside, the King could not have gone the way he is without foreign backing - financial and military. The ironic fact is that democratic countries do not automatically support democracy abroad; it is what they see as their national interests that primarily dictate their policy. Among the visibly active backers of the post-October 4 regime have been the world’s "greatest" democracy (the US) and largest democracy (India). They may switch their support as soon as doing so will suit them better.

The leaders should understand that it is not their pleas or threats that will melt the King. It is only massive public action that is likely to do so. In Nepal, international pressure probably carries even greater weight. In his controversial first and only interview, given to the now defunct Independent weekly after he became a constitutional monarch, King Birendra had said that it was mainly international pressure that had forced him to concede to the demands of the political parties. The European Union favours the cause of the political parties, but perhaps, at least partly, because of American support to this regime, it has not acted decisively, e.g. cutting aid.

So the parties face a double and difficult task — making their movement more broad-based and intensifying it on the one hand and garnering concrete international support on the other. It is hard to understand why these two democratic republics, possessing tremendous clout in Nepal, have not put enough pressure on the Palace to form an all-party government, the only natural and democratic interim arrangement under the circumstances. When the Maoists themselves have expressed their readiness to accept a UN or EU mediation in a political settlement and internationally supervised constituent assembly elections, the lack of interest shown by the establishment and its foreign supporters in the idea only raises doubts about the latter’s intentions.

Foreign backing to this undemocratic and unconstitutional regime has engendered fears about the possibility of Nepal’s long-term vital interests being compromised as a quid pro quo. Sixteen months of the King’s direct rule has shown little promise of development or of peace. It has aggravated conflict within the country, making it three-sided instead of the earlier two, thus portending ruination of the country. Therefore, on this Democracy Day, Nepalis would be paying their most glorious tributes to the martyrs for democracy by vowing to fight on to win back democracy.