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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Troubled Nepal Prepares to Vote

KATMANDU, Nepal -- King Gyanendra, the man who sacked the government a year ago, calls for elections but jails political party leaders. The main political parties demand the restoration of democratic rights, but call on voters to boycott the polls.

At least one mayoral candidate has been assassinated by suspected Maoist guerrillas. And in anti-election protests nationwide, dogs have been paraded along the streets with signs dangling from their necks that read, "Vote for me."

So goes the prelude to municipal elections in this ancient Himalayan kingdom on the violent cusp of change.

The elections, scheduled for Feb. 8, will be held a year after Gyanendra, the world's sole Hindu monarch, seized power in what he described as an effort to defeat the Maoists.

Intentionally or not, Gyanendra's elections coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the rebellion, a conflict that has killed an estimated 12,000 Nepalis.

The Maoists, who have teamed up with the political parties against the palace, issued a new warning to would-be candidates on Saturday to step down or else. By the deadline to register with the election commission, 3,600 candidates had signed to run for more than 4,100 seats. By Sunday, nearly 600 people had withdrawn, leaving a quarter of the municipal races uncontested or without candidates.

That seemed to be of little concern to Nepali Foreign Minister Ramesh Nath Pandey, who said in an interview on Friday that the king had witnessed vast improvements in security and popular enthusiasm for the local polls.

"The country has gone completely in an election mood," Pandey said. "No one who believes in democracy should oppose it."

None of the main parties is fielding candidates, except for a pro-palace breakaway faction of the Royalist People's Party. Among the candidates is Bhimsen Thapa, running for mayor of Pokhara, a picturesque town more than 160 kilometers west of the capital.

"I'm a politician," said Thapa, 45, who reeked of liquor at a midday party meeting in Pokhara. "If you worry, don't work in politics."

On their own, the municipal elections are not terribly important. Mayors and ward leaders are Nepal's equivalent of dogcatchers. But in a country where politics can resemble shadow puppetry, the elections have come to represent a symbolic referendum on the political future of the country. If the elections are seen as credible, they can help the king's standing somewhat. If they come off as a farce, they are quite likely to de-legitimize his reign.

The elections promise to be unlike any others in Nepal history. The Royal Nepalese Army, answerable to the king, is in charge of security. The local officials running the polls ultimately answer to the palace, and the government has offered life insurance policies to the candidates.

Some of the brave-hearted who have chosen to run have been sequestered in government safe houses. The European Union issued a statement on Friday calling the elections "another step backward for democracy." On Monday, a mayoral candidate from the capital was wounded in a shooting.

Even a year ago, just after the royal takeover, one could find a number of Nepalis willing to give Gyanendra a chance to restore peace and many more attached to the idea of a constitutional monarchy. Those sentiments are much harder to find today.

The main question now seems to be how much longer the monarchy will last and how much blood will be shed before its demise. The mood is more hostile than what many remember of the popular movement that ushered in parliamentary democracy in 1990.

"The election is a farce, and it has no meaning at all," said Madhav Kumar Nepal, secretary general of the United Marxist-Leninist Party. "It is designed to legitimize the autocratic regime."

Gyanendra assumed the crown in 2001 after his brother King Birendra was killed in a palace shooting apparently committed by Crown Prince Dipendra, Birendra's son, who also died. Ten members of the royal family were killed. By October 2002, the elected Parliament had been sacked.

On Feb. 1, 2005, Gyanendra declared emergency rule, took over the government, jailed hundreds of political activists and imposed restrictions on the press. In the fall, the Maoists declared a unilateral cease-fire. The palace refused to reciprocate.

"The cease-fire was not between the state and the Maoists," Pandey said. "The cease-fire was between the political parties and the Maoists."

He would not explain further.

During the cease-fire, Maoist killings in the countryside virtually halted as the rebels and the politicians agreed to a detente.

The Maoists gave a nod to the idea of parliamentary politics and agreed to stop attacking party cadres, but said nothing about giving up arms. The politicians said they wished to give the rebels a chance.

"You have to test them," said Ram Sharan Mahat, an anti-Maoist with the Nepali Congress Party. "If they don't mean what they say, they must be exposed."

Nepalis learned this month that the cease-fire had ended when suspected rebels launched spectacular strikes, first on Jan. 14 at the gates of the Katmandu Valley, and then in the southern border town of Nepalgunj. The Maoists have called for a weeklong national strike starting on Feb. 5.