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Nepal voters elect Parliament amid Maoist threats

KATMANDU, Nepal -- In the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, His Majesty King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev is 53, democratic government is nearing 10 and the Maoist rebellion in the countryside has just turned 3.

In a two-stage election, on May 3 and 17, voters had the opportunity to create some order out of this social entropy, and if local analysts are correct they demonstrated admirable wisdom.Ignoring the Maoists' command to boycott the elections -- a directive underscored with a few beheadings -- and largely shunning politicians who favor a return to absolute monarchy, the people gave a majority of the seats in Parliament to the Nepali Congress Party. This will allow a single political camp a long-sought-after chance to govern without sharing power in a foredoomed coalition.

With 23 million people, Nepal is an Arkansas-size nation landlocked between India and China. The annual per capita income is only $210. The adult literacy rate is 40 percent. Average life expectancy is 57.

In 1990 political agitation forced the Harvard-educated, walrus-mustached Birendra to accept a constitutional monarchy.

In the years of democracy, there have been a hapless cavalcade of seven prime ministers. Royalists, social democrats, moderate Communists, less moderate Communists and entirely immoderate Communists have all taken turns in the foreground like the circling figurines on a cuckoo clock.

The result has been political corruption that is denied by no one. The term "Pajero culture" has become popular -- an allusion to an expensive Japanese vehicle favored by the elite. Just as the king's courtiers became exempt from import duties on automobiles, members of Parliament voted themselves the same privilege.

"Rather than a new beginning, the goal was to get on the old gravy train," said Mana Ranjan Josse, Nepal's best-known newspaper columnist. The most recent election was called after the governing Nepali Congress -- best-described as a social democratic party -- had a falling out with its main coalition partner, the Marxist-Leninists.

Voting was held in two stages to allow 35,000 soldiers and police officers to protect the voters from the Maoists.

The success may be attributed to a show of unity by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, 75, who offered to step aside for a fellow war horse and longtime party rival, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, 74. Bhattarai was sworn in as prime minister May 31 and named a 16-member Cabinet, all from his own party.