King Gyanendra finally did it. But the manner in which he swiftly and dramatically sacked the government late Friday night and took over all executive powers "until alternative arrangements can be made" stunned even the most-seasoned political pundits.
And no one seems to have been more shocked than Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba himself. The king used adjectives like "incompetent" and "inept" to describe Deuba in his late Friday night address to the nation. Deuba muttered to the media that the king\'s move was "unconstitutional", and said he would convene a meeting of all parliamentary parties to discuss reaction.
Nepal woke up Saturday morning to news that the king had taken over. Initial reaction in the capital ranged from surprise, cautious optimism to some skepticism that the royal takeover would tackle the country\'s most-serious challenge: resolving the Maoist insurgency. But the people hold politicians and parties in such low esteem that the general reaction from the urban middle class was: "The king waited long enough." Long-suffering Nepalis fed up with six years of conflict felt it didn\'t really matter who ruled the country as long as peace is restored. Civil society and intellectuals in Kathmandu were abuzz, and although there was support for the fact that discredited politicians were sacked there were questions about the methods used.
To be sure, the king has taken a big gamble. With the removal of a parliamentary buffer, the country is now effectively polarised between the monarchy and the Maoists. While no reaction has yet come from the Maoist leadership, it is evident that this is exactly what they would have wanted to happen on their long march to a republic.
The king\'s hand was forced by a constitutional crisis caused by the Deuba government\'s inability to hold elections as scheduled on 13 November. The king is allowed by Article 127 of the constitution to "remove obstacles" for the implementation of the constitution, but the interpretation of this provision had been the subject of intense speculation for the past month.
King Gyanendra had been on a collision course with the Deuba government ever since the prime minister told the king two weeks ago that he couldn\'t sack five powerful Nepali Congress ministers in his cabinet who were seen to be corrupt. Matters came to a head when Deuba admitted to the king that elections could not be held, and then ran into difficulty agreeing on the composition of an interim all-party government. With the deadline for nomination to the previously-announced 13 November elections looming on Friday, the king had to do act to offset a constitutional crisis.
But no one expected his move, when it came, to be so sweeping and striking. Deuba reportedly refused to heed the king\'s repeated request Friday to step down. He had met the king twice, and in the second meeting is said to have had a heated argument with palace officials who asked him for his resignation letter. It is ironical that Deuba is the same prime minister whom his arch-rival in the Nepali Congress, Girija Koirala, had accused of destroying democracy and handing power back to the royal palace.
Some found King Gyanendra\'s move reminiscent of the royal coup of 1960, when the present king\'s father, King Mahendra, dissolved parliament and imprisoned Nepal\'s first elected prime minister, BP Koirala, and members of his cabinet. That move was prompted more by an absolute monarch\'s inability to share power with an elected prime minister.
This time, King Gyanendra appears to have felt that an all-party interim government composed of the same discredited political faces to prepare for postponed elections would just defer the constitutional crisis and keep the country in limbo for another year. He decided to take the plunge and stake all by taking over executive powers to set up a compact technocrat-led cabinet to get the country back on track.
The move has opened the king to accusations that he is trying to take the country back to the days of absolute monarchy. But, faced with a virulent Maoist insurrection that wants to topple the monarchy and declare Nepal a peoples\' republic, the king has decided he would be better off without a prime minister and cabinet widely perceived as being fractious, corrupt and feckless. (See Himalmedia-Nielsen ORG Marg opinion poll in this issue.)
In his address, the king underlined his commitment to democracy and constitutional monarchy and said that this move was temporary and until "alternative arrangements can be made". He has asked each political party to suggest the names of two members to form an all-party council of ministers. Interestingly, he has added the caveat that the two should not be electoral candidates. The king also appears to have apprised India, China and the United States on Friday afternoon by meeting their envoys in Kathmandu before his decision.
Political parties have announced they will go into strategy sessions Saturday, but reaction is expected to be muted: criticism in principle of the king\'s move being unconstitutional but perhaps a joint petition to hold elections quickly. There doesn\'t seem to be the mood to for street protests, and the parties will also be tantalized by the prospect of having a representation in the caretaker council of ministers while the king has dangled in front of them.
The critical question now is who the caretaker prime minister will be and the composition of the council of ministers. A prime minister from the Panchayat era will be seen as a regressive move, while a cabinet led by able and decisive technocrats to immediately start implementing development would be just what the country needs at the moment. And if that happens, the king\'s sacking of the prime minister will be seen as a step that could bring democracy and development back to the national agenda.
Either way, "Asoj 18" will perhaps go down in history as a date to be remembered. Just like "Poush 1".