Thousands of protesters swept through Katmandu on Thursday as Nepal’s political crisis deepened. Early results showed pro-government candidates sweeping local elections, but opponents also claimed victory because so few people voted.
The vote Wednesday was marred by rebel attacks and the shooting of protesters. Security forces were heavily deployed across the city Thursday, and police fired tear gas to disperse two dozen students protesting the king’s rule near the royal palace.
With no opposition candidates running, royalists were sweeping the municipal elections, which were seen as a test of the king’s absolute rule.
But boycotting opposition parties pointed to a turnout of about 20 percent as a sign of how little support King Gyanendra enjoys a year after seizing power.
More than 4,000 demonstrators jammed a densely packed Katmandu neighborhood, waving banners, shouting slogans and calling for punishment of the soldiers who killed a protester in southwestern Nepal on election day.
“Hang the culprits! Down with autocracy! We will fight for democracy!” the crowd chanted.
The demonstrators thinned considerably following speeches, but about 1,000 protesters marched toward a police line, retreating when officers stood their ground. The protest dispersed without incident.
Across much of the rest of the country, streets were crowded again and businesses opened after Maoist rebels canceled a four-day general strike called to disrupt the elections.
The king seized power on Feb. 1, 2004, arguing that the previous interim government failed to make peace or hold elections. He said the power grab was needed to quell a communist insurgency that has left 12,000 people dead in the past decade. Rebel attacks have intensified in recent weeks.
Billed by the royal government as a step toward democracy, Wednesday’s vote was intended to solidify Gyanendra’s position in a power struggle that has pitted him against the rebels and political parties, who have teamed up to press for democracy.
Instead, it appeared to have the opposite effect.
Because of low turnout, the king “is going to weaken in the days to come,” said Narayan Khadka, an independent analyst.
“The king’s election plan has backfired on him. Instead of getting him recognition, he has plunged further into crisis,” he said.
The royal government rounded up hundreds of politicians, activists and journalists in the weeks before the elections, which the country’s seven main political parties shunned to protest the king’s power grab.
Slim pickings at polls
In returns for 22 of the 36 cities and towns where polls were held, the pro-government Rastriya Prajatantra Party won 11 mayoralties, the pro-government Nepal Sadbhawana won two and independent candidates won nine, the Election Commission said.
Candidates ran in less than half of the country’s 4,000 mayoral and local council seats. Twenty-two of the country’s municipalities did not hold an election due to a lack of candidates.
Many voters said they had been scared away from the polls by a Maoist threat to kill those who took part and a government warning that soldiers would shoot anyone trying to disrupt the elections.
“The election was a great victory for our parties and a great failure for the king,” said K.P. Oli, a leader of the Communist Party of Nepal, one of the seven parties that boycotted the vote. “People’s participation was nothing, the booths were empty.”
He repeated the parties’ demand that King Gyanendra hand over power to an interim government made up of the political parties, who would then make peace with the Maoists and hold parliamentary elections.