KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal's King Gyanendra urged his "beloved countrymen" on Wednesday to vote in a historic election almost certain to lead to the abolition of the monarchy.
"It has always been our desire ... to build a prosperous and peaceful nation through a democratic polity in keeping with the verdict of the sovereign people," he said in a statement.
"We call upon all adult citizens to exercise their democratic right in a free and fair environment."
The irony is that when this dirt-poor Himalayan nation stages its first election in nine years on Thursday, hardly anyone will be sticking up for the king. Nor are Nepalis being given much of a chance to do so.
Maoist guerrillas fought a decade-long civil war to end the 240-year-old monarchy, but had promised a popular vote to elect an assembly that would decide the monarchy's future.
However, in the end the decision to abolish it was taken behind closed doors last year by the country's main political parties. The elected assembly will now just rubber stamp that decision.
In a recent interview with Japan's Yomiuri newspaper, Gyanendra said that decision did not reflect the majority view, and Nepalis had the right to decide on the monarchy's future.
"This isn't democracy," he was reported as saying.
Just how free and fair the poll will be is also open to question.
The United Nations, monitoring the elections and peace process, accuses the Maoists of intimidating voters and preventing campaigning in some of their former strongholds. Other parties, it says, have also used state machinery to influence voters.
Eight Maoist cadres were killed when police fired on two separate crowds in western Nepal on Tuesday night and Wednesday, although police say they acted in self-defence.
A candidate from another party was dragged from his crowd by an unidentified mob in Surkhet on Tuesday and shot in the stomach. He died later in hospital. The U.N. said it was "deeply shocked" by the deaths.
Armed groups have also called for a boycott of the polls and threatened voters in the country's southeast, saying they do not trust a promise of greater regional autonomy after the election.
But many people in the plains of the Terai, Nepal's agricultural and industrial heartland and home to half its population, said they were determined to vote anyway.
"It is clear intimidation, but we will go to the booths as we know that bullets and guns will never win the war, only elections can help us secure our rights," said electronics goods trader Rajdeep Sahay in the temple town of Janakpur.
SPECTACULAR FALL FROM GRACE
Although Gyanendra, who seized absolute power in 2005 and relinquished it the following year, is often described as the most unpopular man in Nepal, it is far from clear the monarchy would have lost if a referendum had been held on its future.
An opinion poll published in February found half the respondents supported the idea of at least a symbolic monarchy, but few supported the king himself.
"People want the monarchy, but they don't want this king and they don't want his son," said Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times. "How do you reconcile that? For most people, including monarchists, it's not worth the trouble."
The monarchy's fall from grace has been as spectacular as it was sudden.
In 2001, Gyanendra took the throne after his elder brother was murdered by Nepal's crown prince, who also shot eight other royals before turning the gun on himself.
The new king first tried to rule through puppet governments and then seized absolute power, only to back down in the face of massive street protests that sealed his fate.
Gyanendra was a successful businessman before ascending the throne, with interests in tea, tobacco and casinos. What he does next is anybody's guess, but Maoists say he will be allowed to live freely if he accepts "the verdict of the masses".
Royalists demand a referendum be held on the monarchy and are likely to mount a legal challenge to question the legitimacy of any decision to abolish it. But they are unlikely to do more than win the king a little time, analysts say.
Late on election eve, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala urged the people of Nepal to vote without fear, and for all parties to respect the result of the election.
"Such a day comes once in the lifetime of a nation," he said in a statement. "It will open the door of a new era in Nepal."
In the streets of Kathmandu, that sense of history in the making was mingled with cynicism about whether political leaders were capable of delivering the change Nepal needs.
(Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu and Bappa Majumdar in Janakpur)
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