King Gyanendra has commanded that parliamentary polls be held by April 2007. The deadline decreed by diktat is 18 months away. Municipal elections are slated for February.
But these polls are fraught with uncertainties. Do they even make sense in the absence of a political consensus to resolve the Maoist insurgency? It's still early to speculate but the royal announcement has brilliantly succeeded in confounding the reigning confusion.
For Nepal's donors, democracy means elections. It doesn't really matter who holds the elections, under what circumstances or for which purpose. They see polls in Afghanistan and a referendum in Iraq and think: why not Nepal?
Narayanhiti strategists have accurately guessed the limits of formalism that bind the international community. It is telling them what they have been impatiently waiting to hear: the royal regime is serious about restoring democracy. But Kathmandu-based dips by now have learnt not to be taken in by the palace's promises. After all, even the poll announcement came attached to a draconian press law.
In the absence of anything else, however, the international community may decide that any election is better than no election. The utter bewilderment of even seasoned diplomats in the wake of the poll announcement is palpable.
The Maoists have been desperately trying to salvage their public image that was badly tarnished by the Madi carnage in June. The unilateral ceasefire was a public relations masterstroke but what next? If they accept elections boycotted by the mainstream parties, they will sweep the polls but lose the political war and be blamed for the deaths of 12,500 Nepalis for a dubious cause. Should they join the boycott, they will have to cede the moral high ground to the parties. Either way, polls won't give them the soft landing they need.
The political parties are even more confused. The poll announcement, however uncertain, has made the demand for the restoration of parliament ring hollow. If the parties participate in polls called by the king when none of their demands have been recognised, let alone addressed, they will lose face. But if they don't, and elections are held anyway, they will have to give up all hope of reviving the constitution.
The post-election regime will most assuredly hound them with even more vigour. Party leaders exuded confidence at their Dasain tea parties this week but they must be having sleepless nights. The fact that Nepal has ascended the ranks of the most corrupt on Transparency International's list in just one year makes the prospect of joining the royal government extremely tantalising to politicos with elastic morals who want to hop on the gravy train.
Civil society's silence shows that it doesn't know what to make of the call to polls. After all, these elections sidestep the fundamental question of the ongoing conflict: does our constitution envisage king in parliament or parliament in king?
Surprisingly, all that the king had to do to throw off his critics was to issue a harmless sounding statement of intent. Doubtless, the king still controls the collective destiny of 25 million Nepalis and there seems very little anyone can do about that for now.
Had the king been serious about free and fair elections, he would have rescinded the royal proclamation of 4 October 2002 that assumed extraordinary royal prerogatives. To restore the sanctity of the constitution, ordinances issued after the royal takeover would have been allowed to lapse. Extra-constitutional outfits like the RCCC and Regional and Zonal Administrators would have been scrapped and the rule of law restored.
Were the king sincere in clearing up the misunderstanding between constitutional forces, he would have nullified the nomination of hardcore monarchists in municipalities and DDCs. Most of all, if he believed in a parliamentary system he would have restored the previous parliament. But no, he went ahead and announced an election in which he will set the rules, play the game and decide the winner.
No king, let alone a constitutional one, can ever hope to have as unrestrained authority as King Gyanendra has exercised after October 2002. Now he wants to legitimise it all with elections. The fact that his poll call is so hotly debated is itself proof that the plan may be working.