Hope for Peace in Nepal -- but Not Much for the King

by Nicole Naurath

Almost half of Nepalese say monarchy not necessary


PRINCETON, NJ -- After 10 years of hostility, King Gyanendra of Nepal signed a historic peace agreement last November with the country's Maoist insurgency and Nepal's main political parties. The agreement ends a civil war that has taken the lives of more than 13,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands. The small, impoverished Himalayan nation, nestled between China and India, is returning to a multi-party, democratically elected government and will face a momentous question in the coming months: Will the monarchy remain a significant player in politics, or be completely stripped of its power?

Throughout the last decade, the Maoists have made clear their desire to dismantle the country's 200-year-old monarchy and replace it with a peasant-led communist regime. However, the rebels have indicated more recently that they would accept the will of the people in determining the fate of the king. Gallup World Poll data gathered in Nepal last summer indicate nearly half of Nepalese (48%) feel the monarchy is not necessary, while just 5% said they think it is indispensable.

This low level of support for the monarchy is not typical of Asian nations. Thailand's King Bhumibol, for example, is revered by his subjects. He works to aid the rural poor and meddles in domestic politics only when absolutely necessary (as in the case of the 2006 military coup, which the king supported). In contrast, Gyanendra has tended to overindulge in Nepal's domestic affairs. He generated political unrest when he dissolved parliament in February 2005, and granted himself absolute power in response to the growing Maoist uprising. In April 2006, mass protests against the king drew 300,000 participants in Kathmandu alone and resulted in 19 deaths. After several weeks, Gyanendra capitulated to protestors' demands, announcing that he would restore parliament and requesting that the political parties name a candidate for prime minister.

Since the peace accord was signed on November 21, steps have been taken toward a new political order. Regardless of how conciliatory Gyanendra is throughout this process, his political function going forward will be limited, at best. An interim constitution was agreed upon that essentially strips the king of power while giving authority to the prime minister as head of state and the government.

The new configuration will almost certainly be better aligned with popular sentiment among the Nepalese people. When asked about a series of specific responsibilities, about one in five Nepalese said they thought the king should play a role in defining secular family law (22%), shaping school curricula (20%), and deciding who may run for office (21%). About one in four thought the king should play a role in writing national legislation (24%) and amending the country's constitution (24%).

United Nations representatives have arrived in Nepal to monitor the disarmament process and the impending elections. Reports indicate that police posts closed due to Maoist intimidation during the 10-year uprising may be reopened, clearing the way for the elections to take place as early as March. Following the first meeting of the elected constitutional assembly, the role of the king is likely to be ceremonial at best. Regardless of the fate of the monarchy, it is the hope of many that the current peace will hold, and that the voice of the people will be a more permanent fixture in the Nepalese political landscape.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews conducted June 22-July 11, 2006 with a randomly selected national sample of 1,002 Nepalese, aged 15 and older. For results based on these samples, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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