Q&A: Nepal crisis

Source BBC

King Gyanendra of Nepal has agreed to restore parliament after more than two weeks of protests across the country. The move means that the direct powers seized by the king in February 2005 will come to an end. But what happens next?

Nepal's lower house of parliament reconvenes on Friday – the first time it has met since King Gyanendra dissolved it in May 2002. The first task facing the interim government led by three-times Prime Minister GP Koirala is if, when and how a constituent assembly will be assembled to draft a new constitution.

Maoist rebels have already complained that King Gyanendra's speech on Monday did not address their key demand for elections to a constituent assembly.

They say that the monarch's future role in Nepal remains uncertain, and have vowed to impose blockades of the capital and other big centres until these concerns have been addressed.

The rebels also say that the political parties who welcomed the king's address are in breach of a 12-point agreement made with the opposition alliance in November.

Why did the king back down and agree to parliament re-convening?

The simple answer to that was the sheer size of the demonstrations against him – some of the biggest that the country has ever witnessed.

Faced with this vast display of people power, analysts say that the king had no choice but to back down or the country would have descended into anarchy.

The question now for the monarch is whether or not republican sentiment in Nepal has grown so strong that he will be forced to relinquish his position all together.

How serious were the demonstrations against the king?

Protests led by parties opposed to the king snowballed in April to include people from all walks of life.

The demonstrations in towns and cities across Nepal were the biggest for 15 years, when pro-democracy rallies forced the then king, Birendra, to give up powers and allow the kingdom's first democratic elections.

As the protests grew in intensity, King Gyanendra twice appeared on television. Firstly he said that he would return power to the people and then on 23 April he announced that parliament would re-convene.

Observers say with international pressure mounting on him and the mood among his opponents at home hardening, particularly after the deaths of a number of protesters at the hands of the security forces, the king had few other options.

What is the role of the political parties?

A coalition of seven political parties has led the campaign for the king to restore democracy.

Divisions over whether the monarchy should be scrapped were papered over in the November 2005 agreement reached with the rebels. That agreement used an ambiguous phrasing, talking of the need to end an "autocratic" monarchy.

The political parties also agreed with the Maoists on the need for elections to a constituent assembly to decide how to shape the country's future.

Opposition-led protests have taken place against a background of arrests and prosecutions of party leaders.

Some of those prosecutions were carried out by a controversial royal anti-corruption body, which critics said was a tool of political intimidation. It has since been declared illegal by the Supreme Court in what was seen as a major setback for the king.

Some analysts say there is little room for optimism if the performance of previous elected governments is a measuring stick. After the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1990, it gained a reputation for political in-fighting, rampant corruption and short-term governments.

Why did the king seize power?

He accused Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's government of failing to win the support of the Maoist rebels for a deadline for peace talks and failing to prepare the ground for elections in the spring of 2005.

However, analysts suggest the king might have been using these issues to strengthen his own role in Nepalese politics, perhaps seeking to create an absolute monarchy.

The king denied carrying out a coup. He insisted human rights would be respected and has promised "effective democracy" and peace within three years.

What was the reaction at home and abroad?

Prime Minister Deuba, placed under house arrest, said the "anti-democratic step" had thrown Nepal into a "grave crisis".

India, Nepal's giant neighbour, voiced "grave concern", accusing the king of violating the constitution.

The Indian foreign ministry suggested the move played into the hands of the Maoist rebels seeking to both "undermine democracy and the institution of monarchy".

The US, the UK, the UN and China, among others, all stressed the need for reconciliation between King Gyanendra and the political parties.

How strong are the rebels?

The Maoists are virtually in control of most of rural Nepal, although the authorities dispute this. Rebel fighters melt away into the hills when troops arrive in force.

They have frequently enforced blockades of major towns and cities through fear of reprisals, showing they have the power to paralyse the economy.

Senior military officers say there are between 10,000 and 15,000 well-trained rebel fighters, known as the movement's "hard core". It is estimated that there could be up to 50,000 so called "militia" who fight alongside them.

The army is better equipped, but mountainous terrain and popular support in some areas favours the rebels.

Analysts say that, as the war has progressed, it has become increasingly clear that neither side has the military muscle to win decisively.

What's the human cost of the conflict?

More than 13,000 people have been killed in violence in Nepal since the insurgency began 10 years ago, many of them civilians caught in cross-fire with security forces.

Both sides in the conflict are frequently accused of carrying out human rights abuses.

There has been heavy violence since the rebels ended a unilateral ceasefire at the start of 2006, although clashes have subsided as protests against the king have grown.

What chance is there of peace?

That depends on whether the newly convened parliament and the rebels can agree on the central issue – the role of the constituent assembly.

The Maoists want a new draft constitution, which would offer the option of abolishing the monarchy.

The government's room for negotiation has until April 2005 been restricted by the king's decision to assume executive powers and dismiss successive prime ministers he appointed after parliament was suspended in October 2002.

What do we know about the rebels?

The Maoists claim to be inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong and want to establish a communist state.

Their shadowy leader's name, Prachanda, is translated as "the fierce one". The group is modelled on Peru's Maoist Shining Path guerrillas.

In one recent interview with the BBC, Prachanda said the rebels might reconsider their opposition to the monarchy if the king held free elections for a constituent assembly.

But in another he said he thought the king could face exile or trial, unless the people decided otherwise.