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A democracy without leaders

FOURTEEN GOVERNMENTS in as many years, a crippling insurgency and a constitutional impasse — democracy certainly brought Nepal freedom from the yoke of an absolute monarch but, thus far, little else that has strengthened the nation and much that has weakened it.

King Gyanendra appointed Sher Bahadur Deuba, leader of the Nepali Congress-Democratic, as Prime Minister last month; the third regime since he dismissed an elected government in October 2002.

Then too, Mr. Deuba was the Prime Minister. The King had dissolved Parliament on his recommendation a few months earlier. Two known Palace loyalists followed Mr. Deuba in quick succession, heading the government in name, while in fact the monarch ran the show. The Constitution remained suspended.

The country still has no Parliament, which means the new Government has not been ratified by elected representatives. Elections cannot be held with the Maoists waging an armed insurrection in nearly all of Nepal. And peace talks with the Maoists need a broad-based national consensus, which is yet elusive.

Legitimacy questioned

The country's biggest party, the Nepali Congress, has not joined what was meant to be an all-party Government. Its leader, Girija Prasad Koirala, has said the new Government has no legitimacy as it is only yet another appointed by the King.

A tempting conclusion from all this is that democracy has failed in Nepal. It is one frequently put forward by those who want to see the King regain the powers he lost following the 1990 People's Movement and the transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional king within a multi-party democracy.

But others see it is more as a failure of the political leadership than of democracy. Politicians are the first to admit they have made a mess of things. "We fought against undemocratic tendencies, but we were ourselves overcome by those tendencies," said Madhav Kumar Nepal, general secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (UML), the second largest party after the Nepali Congress, and the biggest in the present four-party coalition Government.

Since 1990, governments preoccupied with survival did not address the country's main problems. People's expectations of democracy remained unfulfilled, providing a rallying point for the Maoist insurgency and an opportunity for King Gyanendra, who ascended the throne in 2001, to spread his own political wings.

One of the main tasks before the new Government, Mr. Nepal said, was to correct the "aberrations and distortions of the last 14 years" by bringing in a "more inclusive and less elite democracy."

Perhaps the main achievement of the last decade has been the spread of political consciousness, and the right to freedom of expression. King Gyanendra's actions since 2002, known here as "regression," provoked a wave of street protests that peaked in May.

With the capital city paralysed for over two months, the King was left with little choice but to invite the political parties to put up a consensus candidate to head a new government.

"The King realised he needs the support of the political parties, that he cannot govern the country by himself," said Sailaja Acharya, a member of the NC working committee.

But once again, she said, the political leadership let down the country. The King nominated Mr. Deuba only after the agitating parties found it impossible to reach agreement on who should become Prime Minister.

"When Mr. Koirala decided we will not suggest any name to lead the government, he did not even call a working committee meeting," Ms. Acharya said of her party leader.

Moves for consensus

Efforts are under way to persuade the Nepali Congress to join the Government to give it a genuine all-party character and enable it to build a national consensus on the Maoist issue.

Eager to see the end of the insurgency that it sees as having a direct impact on its own national security, India too has attempted to persuade the ageing leader to join Mr. Deuba's Government. As yet Mr. Koirala has shown no inclination to do so. Instead, the Nepali press reported him as declaring he would open negotiations with the Maoists on his own.

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