Page last updated at 16:58 GMT, Wednesday, 9 April 2008 17:58 UK

Where next for Nepal's monarchy?

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kathmandu

Royalist candidate in Nepali elections, Jagat Gauchan, instructing people in karate
Jagat Gauchan says Nepal needs the discipline found in karate

Campaigning has ended for Nepal's first country-wide election in nearly a decade, which takes place on Thursday.

Maoist former rebels and other parties have canvassed hard for the polls, in which an assembly will be elected to write a new constitution.

But little is being heard from one group - people who want to keep Nepal's monarchy.

With the institution now due to be abolished, few venture to voice support for the generally unpopular King Gyanendra. But he has his supporters.

One of them is a 51-year-old karate black belt, Jagat Gauchan.

I saw him instructing a horde of cream-clad men, women and children in a back room at the national stadium - with kicks, punches, knee and elbow strikes.

He says karate instils discipline and honesty - the same values he links to strong political leadership.

For that kind of strength, he says, Nepal must turn to its monarchy - which has ruled this diverse country for over two centuries.

Strong institution

"We believe that the country needs the king," he said.

"Without the monarchy in Nepal, this country will not remain. It will break into many pieces or it will be a part of India."

Royalists canvassing in Nepali elections
There are few royalist supporters to be seen in this election

Mr Gauchan said this is because there was no other responsible statesman in the country.

"Our country is very poor and uneducated. Once we don't have a strong institution to lead the people, this country will disappear."

Away from the stadium, Mr Gauchan was to be found on the campaign trail, greeting voters in a picturesque village constituency outside the capital.

Loyal to King Gyanendra, he served as a minister in the ill-fated royal government of 2005. He is now an assembly candidate for a small royalist party.

Two elderly men tell the BBC they have some attachment to the crown - but it is limited.


"We should keep the king, because if there's no father, what's the use of the son?" said one.

But he believes King Gyanendra "isn't wise" - he preferred his late brother, Birendra, slain in a palace massacre in 2001.

His friend says the new assembly should decide whether to keep the monarchy or not. He values the tradition - but, he adds, an elected president would be just as good.

A recent opinion poll suggested nearly half of Nepalis favoured keeping the monarchy, but Gyanendra was personally unpopular.

Nepal's King Gyanendra
King Gyanendra's face has been removed from new notes and coins

The institution's popularity used to be much greater, and the main reason for the decline is the royal massacre.

The official inquiry, and eyewitnesses, said the then Crown Prince killed his father, eight others and himself.

But most Nepalis think it was all plotted by the successor king, Gyanendra, and his unpopular son, Crown Prince Paras.


"When King Birendra was killed and his brother Gyanendra became king, he started out with the liability of being a PR disaster to begin with," says Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times.

His unpopularity grew when he took direct power in the name of fighting the Maoist rebels.

"I think people realised that this king is ambitious and he's actually making the country even more crisis-ridden than it would otherwise be," added Mr Dixit.

After presiding over a worsening security situation and a civil rights clampdown, Gyanendra was forced by street protests to abandon his direct rule two years ago.

United against him, other parties formed a new government.

The government has tried to wipe out signs of the king. His face has been removed from new coins and currency notes.

And the king is now due to be taxed, and his palaces likely to be nationalised.


So, will the monarchy be mourned? Nepalese journalist Prashant Jha thinks only to a certain extent.

"I think there might be an element of nostalgia in some quarters.

Royalist campaign vehicle in Nepal
Royalist election rallies have been broken up by the Maoist party

"The monarchy has been an integral part of what this country has been, since it was formed 240 years back.

"And maybe some in the older generation, who did worship the king as a reincarnation of God, might look back with some affection.

"But I think that nostalgia won't go too far. Because this monarch in the last five years has done something that no monarch had been able to do, which is to destroy... the political legitimacy of the institution [of monarchy]."

In some quarters, the king still commands strong support - or at least fascination.


He has been stripped of even his ceremonial roles, though in recent months his unofficial appearances at religious festivals have brought out crowds - sometimes cheering.

But the ruling coalition has decreed that after the polls the monarchy will go.

Royalist election rallies have been broken up by the Maoist party. And their morale in general isn't high, says Kunda Dixit.

"I think the mood among the monarchists is quite subdued. They get the sense from the public that the Nepali people, even though they may want the monarchy to continue in some form, feel like it's no longer a symbol of national unity, but of national division."

For now, signs of Nepal's royal past - for instance, some statues of its past kings - are still visible.

The monarchy is still valued by some - but it is also associated with autocracy.

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