Nepalese poll flops

Violence and a dramatically low turnout marred the first elections for seven years in Nepal on Wednesday — polls the king had described as the first step back to democracy for the Himalayan state.

Turnout was said to be less than 10%, reflecting dismay with the king’s strategy and a response to Maoist and opposition calls for a boycott.

One political activist was killed and another sent to hospital when soldiers fired on 150 protesters at a polling booth in Dang, south-west of Kathmandu. Opponents of the palace said the poll was a ruse to legitimise the king’s rule. Last month Maoist rebels warned all election candidates to withdraw or face ”severe action”. King Gyanendra had claimed voters wishing for a peaceful, democratic Nepal should defy the Maoists and vote.

As a political discourse, this fits well with the prevailing language of the war on terror. But in the looking-glass world that is Gyanendra’s political universe, nothing is what it seems. In insisting on staging these elections, the king made a bid for political respectability for the absolutist regime he imposed a year ago.

But the king, as that notorious White House official observed of his own ever-optimistic administration, is creating his own reality. In the reality outside the palace gates, it was not only the Maoists who opposed the king’s project: last November Nepal’s seven biggest political parties signed an agreement with the Maoists to fight jointly for a constituent assembly that would write a new — and democratic — constitution for Nepal.

The Maoists had declared a ceasefire and waited four months for a response to their offer of talks. There was no response from a king who believes, against heavy evidence to the contrary, that the Maoists’ 10-year rebellion can be defeated by force. The main political parties boycotted the elections, the Maoists have taken up the gun again, and the king is hanging tough.

Kathmandu is under military occupation, racked by the repeated street protests of an angry citizenry that sees its hopes for democracy not in the king’s elections but in the restoration of the suspended congress and the curbing of the king’s absolute powers.

The regime has responded with mass arrests, the detention of political leaders, the suspension of the universities, intermittent curfews and the shutting down of cellphone networks. In the past year more than 2 000 journalists have lost their jobs after forced closure of newspapers and radio stations for ”negative” reporting.

The country is on the edge of political and economic collapse. The economy is sinking under the weight of diminished revenues and increased military spending.

The king’s international standing is now so low that last month the European Union described the elections as a ”backward step for democracy”.

Despite reports that the army has forced many of the candidates to stand, up to 600 hopefuls withdrew their nominations and hundreds more were put under security protection, ensuring that they were unable to embarrass the king by withdrawing. This striking absence of political ambition left a quarter of the 4 146 seats uncontested and no elections in 12 of the 58 municipalities for want of willing candidates.

The king’s advisers remain indifferent to the hopelessness of a ruthless military campaign and its mounting civilian casualties.

When the king seized power a year ago he and his advisers confidently predicted that the Maoists would be brought to heel within six months.

Then, and only then, they said, would the palace consider talks. A year later the Maoists continue to demonstrate their capacity to operate throughout the country and to bring Nepal to a standstill when they choose.

Now only the United States continues to describe the Maoists as the greatest threat to democracy in Nepal. For Nepal’s political parties, for the neighbouring superpower, India, for the European Union and, increasingly, for the people of Nepal, the greatest obstacle to peace and a return to the constitutional order is the king himself. — Â

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