THE KING'S COUP

Print edition : October 25, 2002

Nepal's King Gyanendra takes over executive power but promises to form a new Council of Ministers. He has the fig leaf of a constitutional provision to justify his act, but it bodes ill for the country's democratic system.

THE very timing of the announcement smacked of high palace intrigue. While much of the country had already gone to sleep, on the eve of the weekly holiday and the beginning of the festivities of the annual Dashein holidays, on October 4 at 10-45 p.m., the constitutional monarch of Nepal, King Gyanendra, announced on state television and radio that Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and his Cabinet were sacked. The King was taking over all executive powers, parliamentary elections were indefinitely postponed and a Council of Ministers was to be nominated comprising people with a clean image and no political ambitions. It was a `constitutional coup', with the King invoking Article 127 of the 1990 Constitution.

King Gyanendra.-GOPAL CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

King Gyanendra had no need to fear any upsurge of popular protest at this serious blow to Nepal's 12-year-old multi-party system. "This is not 1960 when his father King Mahendra ousted B.P. Koirala, abrogated the Constitution and seized power ushering in 30 years of autocratic monarchy. This time there will be no mass political arrests, there will be no street protests," said Kapil Srestha, member of the National Commission for Human Rights. In the last 12 years, a whirligig of 11 Prime Ministers and ineffectual governments across the Right-Left spectrum have alienated the people from self-seeking political parties and corrupt politicians. "We've had governance without a government," Srestha remarked. It has produced, on the one side, a countrywide Maoist rebellion and on the other, a nostalgic falling back on the King as the ultimate guarantor of Nepal's security and integrity. Among the Kathmandu elite, "there is relief that the drift and ineffectual bungling is over, and the King has assertively intervened to save the situation", said social scientist Deepak Gyawali.

Sixteen months earlier, when King Gyanendra ascended the throne after the massacre of the reigning monarch, his brother, and the rest of the family, he was surrounded by dark rumours and misgivings about vaulting ambition. By default his popularity has grown thanks to the non-performance and corruption of the political parties. A Himalmedia-Nielson ORG survey done before the takeover had, expectedly, identified the Maoists as constituting the main threat to democracy (75 per cent). However, more than 37 per cent of those polled indicted the Deuba government as posing a threat to democracy while 34 per cent blamed the Nepali Congress, which at one time was synonymous with the democratic struggle. Some 24 per cent pointed fingers at foreign powers while 17.6 per cent blamed the Palace.

Moreover, with the poll showing corruption as topping the list of issues facing the nation (the Maoists were number three), the recent anti-corruption drive by the Commission for Investigating Abuse of Authority (CIAA) had proved a highly populist measure. Following the King's takeover, five senior Ministers were placed under house arrest pending investigation into corruption charges. Indeed, Deuba was quoted by a United Marxist-Leninist (UML) leader as telling an emergency meeting of the party that it was his refusal to acquiesce to the King's insistence that he sack these five senior Cabinet Ministers that proved to be the Prime Minister's undoing. More heads are expected to roll and more politicians and bureaucrats stand to be discredited as the King builds upon the resentments of the people. "I don't know about what the King had done during the Panchayat regime so I cannot say what will happen next time. But the King said corruption should end and that I support," Deepak Ghale, a rickshaw driver, said. What is excluded from the populist anti-corruption campaign is the question, "Did corruption begin only after 1990 and the arrival of multi-party democracy?" The respondent did not want to be identified.

In Kathmandu intellectual circles a busy phrase today is: "The King is doing a Musharraf". It resonates in the context of the policy of discrediting and marginalising politicians from governance and managing elections owing to pressure from the international (donor) community.

Was there a `grand design'? On this question apparently the jury is still out, because, as constitutional expert Daman Nath Dungana insisted, the space to save democracy is still there. The balance of power between the Palace and the pro-democracy forces began to alter once the Royal Army was called out. Historically the Army has been and remains the King's Army an anomalous situation strengthened by an in-built constitutional ambiguity.

Since May 22, when the King promptly assented to Deuba's precipitate decision to dissolve Parliament where he was facing a revolt from within the Nepali Congress (N.C.), the political system has been sinking deeper and deeper into crisis, till the question became when, and not whether, the King would act. Ambition and opportunity offered themselves when Deuba requested the King to legitimise an all-party consensus to defer the holding of elections by invoking the monarch's residual power under Article 127 and untangle the `constitutional difficulty' and `void'. The King denounced Deuba as incompetent and seized all executive powers till an alternative arrangement could be made.

Political parties like the N.C. and the UML, the main Left party, promptly declared the King's move as being "undemocratic" and "unconstitutional". However, as Dungana, one of the authors of the 1990 Constitution, observed, "It was both within the Constitution and outside it." This ambiguity was at the heart of the Constitution as it was a compromise between rival forces. "We knew there were loopholes and hoped to plug these loopholes, but instead they have grown bigger because of the irresponsible functioning of political parties that has alienated the people from the political parties." This ambiguity is writ large in several provisions of the Constitution, especially Article 127. "If any difficulty arises in connection with the implementation of this Constitution His Majesty may issue necessary orders to remove such difficulty and such orders shall be laid before Parliament."

As constitutional lawyer Purna Man Shakhya explained, Nepal's Article 127 is akin to Article 392 of the Indian Constitution, but whereas the latter is tightly worded and is a transitional provision, the former is ambiguously worded and for all time. It creates room for manoeuvre. Moreover, the King in his royal address while affirming his commitment to democracy asserted that he was exercising the "inherent power" of the state authority vested in the Shah dynasty. "This phrase was used to promulgate the 1990 Constitution and by again using this phrase, the implication is that the Shah dynasty continues to have and exercises this inherent power. From where does this inherent power flow, when after the promulgation of the 1990 Constitution sovereignty was transferred by the King to the people?" asked Shakhya.

Political scientist Krishna Hacchettu argues that the former King Birendra too had vitiated the spirit of the Constitution, which clearly provides for the elected Prime Minister and his Council of Ministers to exercise executive powers. While Birendra incrementally manoeuvred to expand the powers of the constitutional monarch, King Gyanendra's style is a clearly more assertive one. He had given enough indication of this during his visit to India and China where he went far beyond the brief of a constitutional monarch.

The political parties are too discredited to set themselves on a collision course with the King. Efforts to hold an all-party meeting over a period of 48 hours until October 7 failed with the N.C. refusing to play ball. Indeed, even the September 29 seven-party consensus, which backed Deuba's call for deferring the proposed November 13 elections, collapsed within 24 hours with both the N.C. and Deuba's own party dissenting. N.C.(Girija) has all along been lobbying for a reinstatement of the dissolved House in view of the Maoist security threat that makes the holding of elections impossible. While the N.C. is pushing for the revival of the House, the UML is backing the formation of a national government and the former panchayat party, the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party, is backing an "all sides" government.

N.C. spokesperson Arjun Narsingh was at pains to differentiate between King Gyanendra's takeover from that of his father King Mahendra in 1960, emphasising the "King's seriousness towards parliamentary democracy and the Constitution''. Former N.C. Minister C.P. Bastola described the party's strategy as one of `actively engaging' the King. The King had acted and taken all but it also directly exposes the institution of monarchy. The King was beginning to feel the heat, he indicated. `Active engagement', however, would not extend to the N.C. or the UML compromising on the constitution of a Council of Ministers that ignored the established political parties.

The influential Kathmandu Post in an editorial warned against the divisive tendency to interpret the latest crisis as a victory of the pro-panchayat forces and cast the monarchy in a partisan light. "A section of the people who enjoyed clout during the panchayat era is visibly trying to project the latest development as their victory. To recognise them as the cause of this change would be disastrous," the editorial added. Sections of the media have emphasised the importance of not reducing the role of political parties, the essential representatives of the people, in tackling such vital issues as the Maoist insurgency.

Political observers in Kathmandu argue that eventually the King would have to (a la Musharraf ) announce elections, especially given the leverage that donor countries in Nepal have. They note that the King acted only after talking to the American and Chinese Ambassadors (the new Indian Ambassador has yet to reach Nepal and the Charge d'affaires was in Lucknow). Deuba had enjoyed the full backing of India and the United States.

However, his refusal to extend the term of the UML-dominated local self-governing units saw the Western donor countries becoming estranged from him and eventually withdrawing their support.

Meanwhile, the Indian Embassy has reaffirmed its faith in two pillars of stability in Nepal multiparty democracy and the constitutional monarchy and called for early elections.

The key question remains: Will the King's government be any more effective in dealing with the Maoists' Republican challenge? A couple of days before the King's takeover, the Army's Public Relations Officer, Colonel Deepak Gurung, candidly acknowledged at a press conference an instance of crippling intelligence failure by the Army which resulted in attacks in September in Sindhuli and Arghakanchi districts where more than a hundred security personnel were killed. He also admitted that after the Maoist attack had laid waste Army and police barracks and certain state institutions, the Army did not have the capacity to redeploy its forces. Also, the Maoists remain numerically as strong as before, with their losses soon made up through the accretion of new recruits, though he claimed that there was a decline in their level of `efficiency'.

The Maoists have denounced as `undemocratic' the King's takeover. Earlier, there had been much speculation about an N.C.-Maoist nexus following Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) leader Comrade Prachanda's announcement of support for reinstating the House and denunciation as a conspiracy the move to form an all-party government as one that would impede their offer of peace talks. Largely, it has been the political leaders who have been advocating peace talks with the Maoists. With the marginalisation of the political parties, there is the fear that the military option will now be pursued more vigorously, especially as the forces acquire MI-24 and MI-17 helicopters and semi-automatic weapons. Subodh Pyakurel of INSEC, a human rights organisation, expressed the following fear: "We can now expect the Army to unleash its full power, with very serious implications for arbitrary arrests and mass killings of suspected Maoists, including members of political parties".

On October 11, the King will announce the new Council of Ministers. It will be a Friday again, just before Nepal shuts down for Dashein. It will be the first step in marginalising the political parties further. Nepal's political parties are anxiously lobbying the King to work out a compromise and save democracy. However in Kathmandu, elite voices in support of the King to act decisively and rule through technocrats are on the ascendant.

Meanwhile, barely heard is the voice of Pawan Srestha, a humble salesman in Kathmandu, who said: "Multi-party democracy is itself not wrong, but our leaders handling it forgot the basic norms." Nepal's political crisis is not over, but deepening.

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