Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Report 111 / Asia

Nepal: Electing Chaos

Nepal’s royal government is inviting confrontation by forcing through, amidst a new crackdown on civil liberties, municipal elections on 8 February 2006 which will not be free, fair or credible.

Executive Summary

Nepal’s royal government is inviting confrontation by forcing through, amidst a new crackdown on civil liberties, municipal elections on 8 February 2006 which will not be free, fair or credible. Filling local posts with palace placemen will neither restart the national democratic process, nor bring a peace process closer. The conflict remains soluble: although the palace has refused to reciprocate a four-month Maoist ceasefire and the rebels have resumed their armed campaign, mainstream parties and the Maoists have agreed a roadmap which permits compromise with the monarchy. But after one year of royal rule and ten years of insurgency, the priority should be that peace process, not polls for offices with little power that all mainstream parties are boycotting.

Holding elections in any conflict situation is a risky undertaking. In Nepal’s case, the polls are only the latest in a series of moves which have inflamed political tensions and increased the polarisation between the palace and other political forces. The mainstream parties retain considerable support and, with the Maoists agreeing not to impede their activities, are bringing increasing numbers onto the streets. But Maoist support for the boycott has given the king an excuse for a security clampdown and hundreds of non-violent political protestors are still under arrest. The use of the army to suppress dissent has brought back memories of royal opposition to the 1990 democracy movement.

With the first anniversary of the 1 February 2005 royal coup approaching, the elections are a matter of pride for the king. He is unwilling to compromise, even though far fewer candidates have put themselves forward than there are seats available. The local elections are meant to pave the way for general elections, which the royal government insists will reinvigorate democracy. But they have been planned by a coterie of hardline royalist advisers who were active in trying to suppress the 1990 democracy movement and who are set on excluding the parties from power.

The confrontation between an increasingly isolated palace and increasingly militant mainstream activists has benefited the Maoists. Since they ended their unilateral ceasefire on 2 January, they have sustained an intense and effective military campaign. Their new concentration on small urban attacks has been carefully calibrated and well planned. They have demonstrated that they remain a force to be reckoned with, and their attacks on major cities undermine the government’s claim that it has broken their back and rendered them incapable of serious trouble. Most importantly, they are still the only political player with a coherent strategy.

Despite the promise held out by the November 2005 seven parties-Maoist agreement, there is a fundamental dispute over how to progress towards peace. The traditional view that the palace and parties must first unite and then deal with the Maoists is still supported in certain quarters, most vocally the U.S. Others, not least the mainstream parties themselves, have given up hope of a stable alliance with the palace and are looking to move more directly to a new constitutional settlement that can bring the Maoists into non-violent competitive politics.

The combination of peaceful party protests and armed Maoist action has shaken the royal government and may yet derail its proposed elections. But only a serious change of course by the palace can dissipate the mood of confrontation. The role of the outside world in forcing a rethink is crucial. If King Gyanendra is to take it seriously, international concern, with targeted sanctions against his family and officials and a review of aid, must be both more explicit and more coordinated. From February 2005 onwards, his calculation that he can essentially ignore external pressure has yet to be proved wrong.

Kathmandu/Brussels, 31 January 2006

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