When a king's looking-glass world is paid for in blood

Isabel Hilton (THE GUARDIAN, 02/02/06):

On Monday a mayoral candidate in a suburb of Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, was shot and critically wounded at his home by unidentified gunmen. Last Saturday Maoist rebels warned all election candidates to withdraw or face "severe action". Last month the Maoists killed a mayoral candidate in the east of the country. For King Gyanendra, who seized absolute power in a coup exactly a year ago, these incidents are evidence of the evil of terrorism that the municipal elections he has called for February 8 are designed to combat. If voters wish for a peaceful, democratic Nepal, he says, they must 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 is making a bid for political respectability for the absolutist regime he imposed a year ago. It is, he calculates, a win-win manoeuvre: if the Maoists succeed in disrupting the vote, he can claim the moral high ground - that he tried to conduct a democratic exercise, but it was wrecked by terror; if the Maoists fail and the poll proceeds - a less likely scenario at the time of writing - he can claim the vindication of the electorate for his bid to return to feudal power.

But the king, as that notorious White House official observed of his own ever-optimistic administration, is creating his own reality. In the "reality-based community" outside the palace gates, it is not only the Maoists who oppose 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 from the king 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. Now the main political parties are boycotting 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 mobile-phone networks. In the past year more than 2,000 journalists have lost their jobs after the government forced the closure of newspapers and radio stations for "negative" reporting.

The biggest challenge to the elections is yet to come. After demonstrating their capacity to operate within the capital, the Maoists have called a transport strike from February 5 to 11. If previous "strikes" are any guide - and they have been enforced in the past by the murder of drivers who have defied the order - Nepal's road transport will be paralysed, vital supplies will grow scarce and the country will hunker down to endure, as best it can, this latest test of resilience.

Resilient the Nepalese are, but the country is on the edge of political and economic collapse. Tourism, the second-largest foreign-exchange earner, on which 100,000 Nepalese depend, has dropped by 40% and the economy - one of the poorest in Asia - is sinking under the weight of diminished revenues and increased military spending.

The chances of the king's electoral gamble winning him credibility are poor. His international standing is now so low that last week the EU 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 have withdrawn their nominations and hundreds more have now been put under security protection, thus ensuring that they are unable to embarrass the king by withdrawing. This striking absence of political ambition has 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 an increasingly ruthless military campaign and its mounting civilian casualties. The king's right-hand man, Dr Tulsi Giri, recently claimed of the Maoists that "their back is broken", shortly before the rebels launched their latest series of high-profile operations.

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 US 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 EU and, increasingly, for the people of Nepal, the greatest obstacle to peace and a return to the constitutional order is the king himself. This miserable electoral farce will do nothing to change that.