KATMANDU, Nepal – Nepal's government came a step closer to abolishing the monarchy that has ruled this Himalayan nation for centuries when the leading party announced its support Wednesday for declaring the country a republic, officials said.
Leaders of Nepal's largest political party, the Nepali Congress, passed a resolution calling for the special assembly, which is expected to be elected in November, to order the world's last Hindu king to give up his throne, a key demand of former communist rebels, said Sushil Koirala, acting president of Nepali Congress.
The decision came a week after the former rebels, known as the Maoists, who waged a decade-long armed rebellion to turn Nepal into a republic before joining the government this year, withdrew from the ruling coalition over demands that the monarchy be immediately abolished.
The Maoists' move plunged the country into uncertainty and sparked fears of a return to the bad old days of instability, or even outright war.
There was no immediate response from the Maoists. But Nepali Congress leaders said they hoped the move would pave the way for the Maoists to return to the political mainstream in time for the November vote. The Maoists have signaled they would be open to reconciliation.
Wednesday's resolution does not immediately abolish the monarchy — as the Maoists demanded — but it's the latest in a series of steps taken by the interim government to undercut the king's power.
King Gyanendra has been unpopular since he came to the throne in 2001 after a massacre in the royal palace left his brother, King Birendra, and nine other royals dead. Gyanendra seized absolute power in 2005, saying he would bring order to a chaotic political scene and quell the Maoist insurgency that had killed nearly 13,000 people.
But the political and economic climate worsened, and widespread discontent led to nearly a month of protests across the country that ultimately forced Gyanendra to end his royal dictatorship. The king currently holds no real power.
It is still uncertain whether the election, scheduled for Nov. 22, will take place on schedule, though Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala has pledged it would. The Maoists vowed to disrupt the vote — which has already been postponed once — when they left the government on Sept. 18.
Delaying the vote for a special assembly, which is slated to rewrite the constitution and decide on a political system for Nepal, could test the patience of this battered nation desperate for peace and stability.
"This is a historic election," said Ganesh Baniya, a shopkeeper in the capital, Katmandu. "It should be held at any cost. They can't put off the election anymore."
Maoist leaders had said they did not think the election could be conducted fairly and they left the government because the Nepali Congress failed to meet their demands, notably the declaration of a republic.
But on Wednesday, the prime minister accused the former rebels of withdrawing because they feared they would lose the November vote.
"They are afraid to contest the election because their support base in the Terai has eroded," Koirala said, referring to a troubled region in southern Nepal.
Over the past year, the interim government has steadily stripped the king of his political power and the trappings of the monarchy.
The government nationalized 12 royal palaces. A government committee has also been trying to catalog the king's property and assets — which are said to be substantial and well-hidden.
Authorities also cut off the king's annual allowance of 2.7 million rupees (US$500,000).