HISTORY OF THE NEPALESE GOVERNMENT
For centuries the government had been run by a number of interrelated aristocratic families. Despite the limitations of a royal ban on political parties and other impediments, political parties did exist and operated clandestinely. To escape harassment or imprisonment, many political leaders went to India, where they also received logistical and other support. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Nepal was unified under Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1769. After his death in 1775 Nepal fell into chaos as elite families vied for control. For almost a century intrigues among the aristocratic families of Kathmandu was the dominate them of governance in Nepal. A power struggle continued until 1846, when several Nepalese government officials were killed during the Kot massacre, which thrust the Rana family into power. For a century the hereditary prime ministers from the Rana family governed in the name of the Shah kings. [Source: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”, 2008; “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]
Opposition to the Ranas began in the 1940s and started to take hold in the 1950s. The Nepali Congress Party helped enact a number of reforms that made the Nepalese government system more democratic. The Rana government fell in 1951 and this was followed by a series of governments appointed by the Nepalese monarchy. Nepal had its first democratic elections in 1959, and the Nepali Congress Party took control of the government but democracy was shortlived. What was essentially a royal coup d'etat gave birth to the partyless panchayat system made up of public assemblies at village, district, and national levels all under the control of the king (See Below). This system was described and upheld by a new constitution introduced in 1962.
In the 1980s political parties increased in number, size and influence. Among them were communist and radical antimonarchist groups. After an economic crisis and foot shortages in 1989 and 1990, widespread urban demonstrations organized by coalition of political parties forced King Birendra to dismantle the Panchayat system and create a constitutional monarchy with multiparty, parliamentary democracy in 1990 with a 205-seat House of Representatives and a 60-member National Council. The new government, however, was compromised by corruption and infighting and was unable to solve Nepal’s economic problems, particularly severe poverty. There a lot of dissatisfaction in the neglected countryside and a Maoist insurgency evolved there in the 1990s that gained strength as time went on and began seriously challenging the government in the 2000s.
In 2001 King Birendra and eight other royal family members were murdered by Crown Prince Dipendra (1971–2001), Birendra’s son. Dipendra also died in the rampage and and Prince Gayanendra (1947–), Birendra’s brother, ascended the throne. After the massacre, there much upheaval and turmoil: riots in the streets, royal seizures of power, strikes and curfews along with the civil war with the Maoists that finally ended a peace accord in 2006. The monarchy was abolished in 2008, something the Maoists very much wanted, and the Maoist entered the Nepalese government. New elections were held in the 2010s, enabking the Maoist and Communists to take control of the parliament. A new constitution was promulgated in 2015.
Monarchy in Nepal
Nepal was a constitutional monarchy and the world’s only Hindu kingdom until the monarchy ceded power in 2006 and was officially abolished in 2008. For a long time Nepalese had a deep reverence for the monarchy that was near the levels the Thais have traditionally revered their monarchy. One Nepalese man told AFP, "King and country are dearer than our lives." A trade unionist told the Independent in the mid 2000s. "Most Nepalese feel that if the royal family does not exist, Nepal does not exist." Speaking about the monarchy in anything but glowing terms was considered sacrilegious.
The monarchy has traditionally been supported by the Nepal military and wealthy citizens but has not earned the respect among rural farmers. The monarchy operated like a holding company. It owned tea and tobacco estates and a Kathmandu five-star hotel. The Nepalese king didn’t enjoy the same kind of support from ordinary citizens as the Thai king.
After the restoration of democracy in 1990, the most prominent players in Nepalese politics were the king, the political parties, and the Maoist rebels. The single most powerful political entity was the king, who is the head of state, supreme commander of the Royal Nepal Army, and the constitutionally declared symbol of both the nation and national unity. The Raj Parishad, or King’s Council, determined accession to the throne and the heir apparent, and the king appointed its members.
History of the Monarchy in Nepal
Modern Nepal was created in the latter half of the 18th century when Prithvi Narayan Shah, the ruler of the small principality of Gorkha, formed a unified country from a number of independent hill states. The country was frequently called the Gorkha Kingdom, the source of the term “Gurkha” used for fierce Nepali soldiers although modern Gurkahs have little to do with the Gurkhas of medieval Gorkha. The original Gurkhas are believed to be descendants of warlike Rajput tribes of Chittaur in Rajasthan who claim they were driven out of northern India during the Muslim invasions there.
For about 100 years, up to 1951, Nepal's Government was ruled by the hereditary Prime Ministers of the Rana family, while the King was a figurehead without real power. After 1947, when India and Pakistan gained independence and Nepalese were inspired by India's independence movement, Nepalese began protesting against autocratic Rana rule. [Source: Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]
Tensions between King Tribhuvan and the Rana Prime Minister increased. In November 1950, the King escaped from his palace prison and took asylum in India. An armed revolt to overthrow the Rana regime began that ended in February 1951 with the signing agreement that elevated King Tribhuvan to the leadership of Nepal and ended Rana rule. The king was welcomed back rejoicing in the streets and non-Ranas for the first time took key positions in the government.
In February 1959, King Mahendra approved a new constitution under which Nepal's first multiparty parliament was elected. In December 1960, after a brief period of democratic, parliamentary rule, the King proclaimed that the country’s experiment with democracy had failed and he seized control of the government, dissolved the parliament, and banned political parties. Mahendra was supreme commander of the armed forces, appointed (and had the power to remove) members of the Supreme Court, appointed the Public Service Commission to oversee the civil service, and could change any judicial decision or amend the constitution at any time. Within a span of ten years, the king had, in effect, reclaimed the unlimited power exercised by Prithvi Narayan Shah in the eighteenth century.
King of Nepal
Until Nepalese monarchy ceded power to government in 2006 and was abolished in 2008, the king was technically a constitutional monarch. He was not supposed to be involved in politics but in actuality he often acted as an absolute monarch and was the Supreme Commander of the Royal Nepalese Army (See Military), which provided an underpinning for his power
The King of Nepal is considered to be a god — an incarnation of the Vishnu, the Hindu god of protection and preservation. Until 1990, he ruled Nepal as an absolute monarch. The rule of kings was culturally legitimized by the belief that kings were an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu and are upholders of dharma on earth, although it is debated how widely such beliefs were held. Royal power was based on strong ties with the military and economic elites. [Source: Library of Congress]
The Nepalese monarch has a plumed golden crown placed on his head by a royal priest during the coronation ceremony at Kathmandu’s Monkey Gate Palace. He is taken to the royal palace in a chariot through streets in Kathmandu lined with people. The King of Nepal used to make visits to the Kumari Ghar — Palace of the Living Goddess — to pay homage to kumari (young girls regarded as living goddesses). Kumari traditionally blessed the king of Nepal during the annual Indra Jatra festival in the fall.
The Nepalese king was once waited upon by thousands of retainers. The Nepalese royal family was notorious for court intrigue. Rumors are always floating around as to whom was doing what to whom. The same intrigue also penetrated Nepalese political and government life.
Rhino Blood Bath for the Nepalese King
Hindus believe that the rhinoceros got its horn from Lord Vishnu. In a rite called Blood Tarpan, which every Nepalese king, was required to perform on his accession, the Nepalese monarch was bathed in rhino blood and was required to offer rhino blood libations to the Hindu gods. A Nepalese prime minister performed the ritual at the age of 19 even though he was not a monarch.
The Nepalese prime minister told National Geographic, he went to Chitiwan National Park where a man on top of an elephant killed a rhino with one shot. "Then," he said, "a team of helpers dragged the rhino to a nearby riverbank, where using special knives, they disemboweled him. I climbed into the abdominal cavity they had made in the rhino and sat in its blood up to my waist for a few minutes while the Hindu priests officiating at the ceremony offered prayers. When I was directed to do so, I stood up, my hands cupped with rhino blood, and held them outward to the gods in memory of my mother...Later I ate the meat between the hoof and the ankle of one of the rhino's legs; the rest of the meat I gave away to the villagers."
In January 1981 this same ritual was repeated by Nepalese King Birendra in honor of his father. Although this ritual seems cruel, it helps the species as a whole to survive. Over 500 armed soldiers guard the rhinoceros in Chitiwan National Park The number of rhinos increased from 160 in 1966 to 375 in 1984. There has been no poaching in the park since 1976.
From 1962 to 1990 Nepal was governed through a four-tiered system of representative government called the “panchayat” system with elected representatives at the 1) multi-village level, 2) ward level, 3) district level and 4) national level council that were largely under the control of the king, who also had the power to directly appoint and dismiss the prime minister and the cabinet. The Panchayat system is established in 1962. A national referendum voted to support the Panchayat system in 1980.
In April 1962, King Mahendra (ruled 1955-1972) instituted the indirect, nonparty “panchayat” (village council) government. The system was ostensibly set up to be responsive to local needs and inputs, but local councils had little effective power and often served as sources of patronage for the king, who continued to retain both absolute authority and support from the military. King Mahendra cited alleged inefficiency and corruption in government as evidence that Nepal was not ready for Western-style democracy. He gave himself absolute power. He curbed freedoms of speech, assembly and press, and established a rubber-stamp government and parliament, made criticism of the monarchy a criminal offense. In 1967, the king, under Indian pressure, began gradually liberalizing his government. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005; “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook, Gale, 2009]
The panchayat system was created by the 1962 constitution. At the local level, there were 4,000 village assemblies (gaun sabha) electing nine members of the village panchayat, who in turn elected a mayor (sabhapati). Each village panchayat sent a member to sit on one of seventy-five district (zilla) panchayat, representing from forty to seventy villages; one-third of the members of these assemblies were chosen by the town panchayat. Members of the district panchayat elected representatives to fourteen zone assemblies (anchal sabha) functioning as electoral colleges for the National Panchayat, or Rashtriya Panchayat, in Kathmandu. [Source: Library of Congress *]
In addition, there were class organizations at village, district, and zonal levels for peasants, youth, women, elders, laborers, and ex-soldiers, who elected their own representatives to assemblies. The National Panchayat of about ninety members could not criticize the royal government, debate the principles of partyless democracy, introduce budgetary bills without royal approval, or enact bills without approval of the king. Mahendra was supreme commander of the armed forces, appointed (and had the power to remove) members of the Supreme Court, appointed the Public Service Commission to oversee the civil service, and could change any judicial decision or amend the constitution at any time. To many of the unlettered citizens of the country, the king was a spiritual force as well, representing the god Vishnu upholding dharma on earth. Within a span of ten years, the king had, in effect, reclaimed the unlimited power exercised by Prithvi Narayan Shah in the eighteenth century. *
Organizations with the Panchayat System
Under the panchayat system, there were six government- sponsored class and professional organizations for peasants, laborers, students, women, former military personnel, and college graduates. These organizations were substitutes for the prohibited political parties and provided alternate channels for the articulation of group or class — rather than national — interests. The professional and class organizations were warned repeatedly against engaging in political activity; nevertheless, they offered the only political forum open to many Nepalese, and even some Nepali Congress Party and communist partisans considered them worthy of infiltration.*
The king also launched an independent national student association, the National Independent Student Council (Rashtriya Swatantra Vidyarthi Parishad), to control the political activities of the students. The association failed to gain support, and successful student agitation in 1979 forced the king not only to abolish it but also to initiate constitutional reforms leading to the national referendum of 1980. Also in 1980, a group of dissident pancha brought a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa on charges of bureaucratic corruption, food shortages, and lack of economic discipline. Surya Bahadur, however, was a perennial political survivor and was returned to office in 1981.*
King Birendra devised the Back-to-the-Village National Campaign (BVNC) in 1975. The BVNC was intended to circumvent the possibility of opposition within the panchayat and to create a loyal core of elites to select and endorse candidates for political office, thereby neutralizing the influence of underground political party organizers in the rural areas. Although it was envisioned as a means to mobilize the people for the implementation of development plans and projects, the shortlived BVNC — it was suspended in 1979 — was in reality an ideological campaign to reinforce the importance of the partyless system. The campaign stressed that the partyless system was appropriate to the ways of the Nepalese people; the party system was a divisive and culturally alien institution.*
Each zonal committee had a BVNC structure, with a secretary nominated by the king. The BVNC network was extended to the district and village levels so as to reinforce a national communication system. However inasmuch as the government paid the BVNC central and zonal committee members and restricted chances for popular participation, the committees carried out the same activities as the panchayat. In actuality, the BVNC was created by the king to ensure a loyal organization and circumvent active party members from gaining seats in the panchayat elections. The BVNC became an organization of centrally controlled loyal panchayat elites and an insurance policy for palace initiatives.*
Opposition to the Panchayat System
The only significant opposition to the monarchy came from the Nepali Congress Party, which operated from exile in India. Other parties either accepted and operated within the panchayat system on a supposedly nonpartisan basis or merged with the exiled Nepali Congress Party, polarizing politics over the issue of monarchical rule. Even the Communist Party of Nepal, divided on the tactical question of whether to seek the direct and immediate overthrow of the monarchical system or to work within it, had split into factions — a radical wing operated in India and a moderate wing underground in Nepal. Some party members, to gain tactical advantage over the Nepali Congress Party, entered the panchayat system with the tacit approval of the palace. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Ethnic plurality, income disparity, linguistic diversity, pervading regional loyalties, underdeveloped communications, and a paucity of written and electronic media also hindered party organization. The dominant high-caste political leaders were more interested in sharing or gaining access to power than in developing lasting foundations for party politics.*
Reportedly, before political organizations were banned, there were sixty-nine political parties, most of which were characteristically fluid in their membership and inconsistent in their loyalties. Personalities rather than ideologies brought individuals and groups under the nominal canopy of a party. Fragmentation, recombination, and alliances for convenience were the outstanding aspects of party behavior.*
In the polarized political climate, the monarchy looked at the panchayat system as its only dependable support base. The panchayat apparatus provided access for politically motivated individuals to form a new elite. Although the political leadership and following of the Nepali Congress Party initially stayed away from the panchayat system, over time, and in the absence of an outlet for political activities, some defections took place. Nevertheless, the lateral entry of some pro-Nepali Congress Party elements did not substantially change the character of the panchayat leadership, which was dominated by rural elites of the Hill Region rather than the urban Kathmandu and Terai Region elites who had been in the forefront of political activities. The system was designed so that the established parties would gradually shrink and lose their influence and control. Once the new panchayat leadership matured, however, some members became restive under the excessive control of the palace. This group of the panchayat elite opposed the system from within and overtly joined the prodemocracy movement.*
Reform of the Panchayat System
King Birendra (ruled 1972–2001) took the throne at the age of 27 after King Mahendra died suddenly in January 1972. He adopted a more liberal approach to government. Amid student demonstrations and anti-regime activities in 1979, King Birendra called for a national referendum to decide the nature of Nepal's government — either the continuation of the Panchayat system —a partyless political system of local governments under the direct rule of the king — with democratic reforms or the establishment of a multiparty system. The referendum national was held in May 1980. The king interpreted the narrow margin of support for the panchayat system (54.7 percent voted in favor) as a need for political change. The King carried out the promised reforms, including selection of the prime minister by the Rastriya Panchayat (the national legislature). [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook, Gale, 2009; Library of Congress, November 2005]
In 1975 the king appointed a seven-member Reform Commission to investigate making changes in the panchayat system, but during that year Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in her country, jailing members of the opposition and curtailing democracy there. In this climate, the recommendations of the Reform Commission in Nepal led to a 1975 constitutional amendment that made cosmetic changes in the panchayat system but only increased its rigidity. The changes included the establishment of five development regions to promote planning and the increase in membership of the National Panchayat from 90 to 134 persons. The king was to nominate 20 percent of its members. *
After violent protests in 1979 King Birendra promised further liberalization. The existing panchayat system was endorsed by 55 percent of the voters in May 1980 referendum. Reforms were made. The king agreed to allow direct elections to national assembly — but on a non-party basis. The king's constitutional amendments established direct elections and permitted the Panchayat, not the king, to choose the prime minister.
When it became apparent that the panchayat system was going to endure, B.P. Koirala and other political exiles began to tone down their revolutionary rhetoric and advocate a reconciliation with the king. On May 24, 1979, King Birendra announced on Radio Nepal that there would be a national referendum in the near future, during which the people could decide to support or reject the panchayat system of government. This referendum represented the first time in modern history that the monarch had publicly consulted his subjects. Political freedom was allowed to all citizens during the period of preparation for the referendum, and there was intense realignment of political factions inside and outside the panchayat system. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Finally, on May 2, 1980, out of a potential 7.2 million voters, 4.8 million cast their ballots. The outcome supported the panchayat system, with 54.7 percent for and 45.3 percent against it. Koirala and the Nepali Congress accepted the results. Although the referendum was a victory for the king, its narrow margin clearly indicated the need for change. Accordingly, the king quickly confirmed freedom of speech and political activity and announced the formation of an eleven-member Constitution Reforms Commission. The result, in December 1980, was the Third Amendment of the 1962 constitution, setting up direct elections to the National Panchayat, which would then submit a single candidate for prime minister to the king for approval. A Council of Ministers would thenceforth be responsible to the National Panchayat, not to the king.
In 1988, political parties began campaigning for the end of the panchayat system. After a period of strikes and violent demonstrations, foreign nations pressured King Birendra to allow democratic reforms. In April 1990, King Birendra dissolved the Panchayat system, lifted the ban on political parties, and released all political prisoners. A new constitution was created. An interim government was sworn in on April 19, 1990, headed by Krishna Prasad Bhattarai as Prime Minister presiding over a cabinet made up of members of the Nepali Congress Party, the communist parties of Nepal, royal appointees, and independents.
Movement Towards Democracy Under the Panchayat System
During the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s there was significant progress towards democracy in Nepal's traditionally authoritarian political system. The first national elections in Nepal took place in 1959 — some eight years after the overthrow of the Rana system. The Nepali Congress Party-dominated government, victorious in the 1959 parliamentary elections, was overthrown by King Mahendra within two years — resulting in the ban on political parties. The pattern that developed over the following decades was that of a monarchy reinforcing its power through the traditional institution of the panchayat. The panchayat system, co-opted and easily manipulated by the monarchy to suit its political ends, nevertheless was slowly but steadily subjected to pressures to change. Over time the monarchy was forced by necessity to expand the role of elections in response to the mounting discontent of a citizenry living in an age of heightened political awareness and rising expectations. This trend culminated in May 1991 with the first truly free elections in over thirty years, ushering in a new political era. The Nepali Congress Party obtained a workable majority within the framework of a constitutional monarchy and affirmed the rise of a nascent democratic force. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
One of the ramifications of the prodemocracy movement was the beginning of a process of integration in national politics and decision making. With an elected Parliament and demands for an equitable allocation of resources to different regions, it was likely that all regions would compete for equality in national politics and that the monopoly of power by select families would erode, as would the excessive influence of the Kathmandu Valley Brahman, Chhetri, and Newar elites.*
At the beginning of 1990, the panchayat system still dominated Nepal. Although the institution itself was the object of derision from opponents of the panchayat system, it appeared unthreatened. Within a few months, however, its position eroded and then crumbled with bewildering speed. The surge of the successful prodemocracy movement sweeping Eastern Europe, parts of the Soviet Union, and several Asian countries profoundly inspired the Nepalese people. Also contributing to the sudden transformation were the economic woes of Nepal, exacerbated by India's refusal to renew a trade and transit agreement; widespread bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption at all levels of government; the misgivings openly expressed by the international donors over the country's inefficient use of aid; and a deplorable record on human rights.*
In January 1990, the Nepali Congress Party held its first national convention in thirty years in Kathmandu. It was well attended by party delegates from all districts and observers from all political parties. Also present was a multiparty delegation from India, headed by Janata Dal (People's Party) leader Chandra Shekhar, who subsequently became Indian's prime minister. The Nepali Congress Party cooperated with the United Left Front parties, a coalition of seven communist factions, in a joint program to replace the panchayat system with a multiparty political system and launched the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, or prodemocracy movement.*
Growing political unrest, accompanied by massive demonstrations, forced King Birendra, as a palliative tactic, to call for a nationwide referendum to choose the form of government. Following the May 2, 1980, referendum — the subject of charges of rigging — the panchayat system was reaffirmed. However, members of the Rashtriya Panchayat would henceforth be elected directly by the people on the basis of universal adult suffrage. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
In May 1981, the king promulgated the third amendment to the 1962 constitution incorporating the results of the referendum. There was no change in the fundamental principle of partylessness; all candidates for the Rashtriya Panchayat competed as individuals.*
The first direct election to the Rashtriya Panchayat was held in May 1981. In the midst of an election boycott by the Nepali Congress Party and other banned political parties, the exercise only legitimized the administration of Prime Minister Thapa as a democratically elected popular government. Indirectly, however, the election was counterproductive because it intensified further the increasingly sharp divisions within the various panchayat and the continued opposition of the Nepali Congress Party, various communist factions, and peasants' and workers' organizations.*
There were 1,096 candidates contesting 112 seats in the 1981 elections. Campaign appeals were made on regional, ethnic, and caste lines rather than on broad national issues. Among the contestants were forty-five candidates from pro-Moscow communist factions, thirty-six candidates from the Nepali Congress Party, and several multiparty pancha. Voter turnout was 63 percent. Despite Thapa's reelection, more than 70 percent of the official candidates were defeated. Candidates who supported the multiparty system also fared poorly. The election of fifty-nine new members in the Rashtriya Panchayat indicated the voters' rejection of the old guard. The indirect participation of the political parties was a symbolic gesture toward national consensus and reconciliation; the chief protagonist was the moderate Nepali Congress Party leader, B.P. Koirala.*
In the tradition of panchayat political patterns of instability, the quick fix of a referendum and new elections failed to restore political equilibrium to the system. Corruption and general administrative inertia further vitiated the political climate. Even senior panchayat leaders, who were openly critical of the system, became willing participants in intrigues, which only precipitated counterplots by paranoid palace advisers. Clashes between students, which were at times supported by faculty members, created disturbances throughout the country.*
1986 and 1987 Elections
Between the 1981 and 1986 elections, there was a growing rift among the pancha. Without a viable economic and political program, disillusionment with the panchayat system increased. In the face of a deteriorating economy, faltering development plans, and the failure of the panchayati raj to inspire motivation and confidence in an already demoralized bureaucracy, the credibility of the government waned. The banned political parties, especially the Nepali Congress Party, after initial efforts at reconciliation, concentrated on organizational work and the demand for political pluralism. Most political activities, however, were noticeable only within the panchayat system itself. Appointed in 1983, the new prime minister, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, had a no-confidence motion filed against him immediately after taking office. The motion was declared inadmissible on the grounds of errors in drafting, but this power struggle among different groups of pancha further undermined the panchayat system. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
The uneasy political stalemate was upset when in late May 1985, the Nepali Congress Party, in preparation for the 1986 election, decided to launch a satyagraha (civil disobedience) campaign — in which many communists also participated — to demand reforms in the political system. A large number of Nepali Congress Party activists were quickly arrested. Although the campaign generally lacked popular support, it received considerable attention and interest among intellectuals and students, caused tension within the government, and further divided the already fractured panchayat. Kathmandu also was subjected to violence, including explosions that rocked the royal palace and other key buildings. There was further discontent when, at the panchayat workers' annual congress, the moot issue of government accountability to the legislature was disallowed from discussion.*
In a politically charged atmosphere, the second quinquennial nationwide election to the Rashtriya Panchayat was held in May 1986. Slightly more than 9 million voters cast their ballots for 1,584 candidates for 112 seats. According to official sources, 60 percent of all eligible voters participated in the election.*
The election was marked by a lack of enthusiasm, which partly reflected the Nepali Congress Party's boycott. A few communist factions contested the election. About 20 percent of the candidates were elected either on the basis of their roles as champions of the opposition or for their stand against the elite. Allegations of electoral malpractice also were widely voiced. The electoral success of forty-five Chettris and Thakuris, sixteen Hill Brahmans, and seven Newars indicated that the traditional power structure remained largely unaffected. Marich Man Singh Shrestha, a Newar, was appointed prime minister. Three women were elected to the Rashtriya Panchayat from the Terai Region, but no Muslims were elected.*
For local elections in 1987, in contrast to the procedure followed in the 1986 elections, the Nepali Congress Party and a number of communist factions allowed their members to participate as individuals in the 1987 local elections. The Nepali Congress Party also made it clear that its local election strategy did not mean an end to its opposition or resistance to the panchayat system. In urban areas, especially in the Terai Region, certain party members, as well as some communists, did very well and were returned to office in substantial numbers.*
Drive to Create a Democracy in Nepal in 1990
Beginning on February 18, 1990 — the thirty-ninth anniversary of King Tribhuvan's declaration of a multiparty democracy and the thirtieth anniversary of the antidemocratic usurpation of power by the palace — a series of spontaneous and sometimes turbulent mass demonstrations rocked major cities. People took to the streets to demand the restoration of a multiparty democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms. The success of the Kathmandu bandh (general strike) by prodemocracy forces on March 2 was repeated in other parts of the country over the course of seven weeks. By the time the movement succeeded in totally uprooting the panchayat system, at least fifty people were dead, and thousands were injured as a result of the force used by the authorities in suppressing the agitation. The government also had incarcerated national and district-level leaders of both the Nepali Congress Party and the United Left Front. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Unable to contain the widespread public agitation against the panchayat system and the mounting casualties, and fearing for the survival of his own monarchical status, King Birendra lifted the ban on political parties on April 8. The unrest persisted. In the midst of continued violence, a royal proclamation on April 16 dissolved the Rashtriya Panchayat and invalidated provisions of the 1962 constitution inconsistent with multiparty democracy. The next day, the king named Nepali Congress Party President K.P. Bhattarai, a moderate who had spent fourteen years as a political prisoner, as prime minister and head of the interim government. The government also freed all political prisoners, lifted control of all domestic and foreign publications, and established a commission, known as the Mullick Commission, to investigate the recent loss of life and property.*
The eleven-member Bhattarai cabinet, composed of four members of the Nepali Congress Party, three members of the United Left Front, two human rights activists, and two royal nominees, was immediately entrusted with the task of preparing a new constitution and holding a general election. Pending the adoption of a new constitution, the interim government agreed that Nepal should remain under the 1962 constitution. In the interest of continuity and orderly management of public business, the interim government resisted demands from the left for a mass purge of the bureaucracy and die-hard panchayat elements. Bhattarai's goal was national reconciliation in a multiparty democracy.*
Semi-Democracy in Nepal
After nine months of politicking, a new constitution was proclaimed on November 9, 1990. Elections to the House of Representatives were held on May 12, 1991. The new government faced the immediate problems of restoring law and order, providing economic relief to the populace, and establishing its claim to sound administration, a somewhat difficult task because the parties of the interim government had been in the opposition for a long period of time. Furthermore, pro-panchayat thugs who had tried to foment chaos and law and order problems to discredit the new government had to be brought under control. The situation improved as many former panchayat leaders who had previously supported moves for a multiparty democracy openly supported the political changes and offered to cooperate with the new government- -taking advantage of political opportunism. *
The 1990 constitution established a constitutional monarchy with a legislature consisting of the king and two houses of parliament, the house of representatives (lower house) and the national council (upper house). The house of representatives had 205 members and the national council 60. The country was divided into 14 zones and 75 districts. The districts were further divided into smaller units — into municipalities and village development committees (VDC). At present, there are 3,913 VDCs and 58 municipalities [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]
After the restoration of democracy in 1990, the most prominent players in Nepalese politics were the king, the political parties, and the Maoist rebels. The single most powerful political entity was the king, who is the head of state, supreme commander of the Royal Nepal Army, and the constitutionally declared symbol of both the nation and national unity. The Raj Parishad, or King’s Council, determined accession to the throne and the heir apparent, and the king appointed its members. The rule of kings was culturally legitimized by the belief that kings were an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu and are upholders of dharma on earth, although it is debated how widely such beliefs were held. Royal power was based on strong ties with the military and economic elites. [Source: Library of Congress]
1991 Elections in Nepal
For many Nepalese, participation in the democratic process meant either walking for hours along mountain paths or riding a yak to cast a ballot. Since most voters were illiterate, they had to choose a candidate according to the party's symbol as authorized by the election commission; for example, a tree signified the Nepali Congress Party and a sun represented the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist). [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Although forty-four parties were recognized by the Election Commission, only twenty parties actually contested the elections. The twenty parties ranged across the political spectrum from radical right to loyalist leftist and all except a leftwing radical faction, Masal (Torch), eagerly participated in the elections. Twelve parties did not win a single seat and obtained a total of only about 82,500 votes, slightly more than 1 percent of the total valid votes. Many voters seemed to have fallen back on their ageold identification with caste or ethnic community. Younger voters favored the progressive leftist parties, as did voters in the urban areas.*
The Nepali Congress Party won the first multiparty election in thirty-two years, taking 110 seats in the 205-member House of Representatives. The results of the elections, however, demonstrated that a coalition of various communist parties was a major political force in Nepalese politics, defying the international trend of dismantling communist parties and regimes. The Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), a constituent of the United Left Front, won sixty-nine seats. The three other communist parties of the United Left Front coalition won a total of thirteen seats. Besides the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) alliance, four other parties qualified for national party status, which meant they polled more than 3 percent of the total votes cast.*
The election was marked by heavy voter turnout. Of a total of more than 11 million voters, about 7 million, or 65 percent, cast ballots, of which slightly more than 4 percent were declared invalid on technical grounds. The election results made it very clear that the promonarchists and those in favor of the panchayat system lacked national support. Communist parties won in the Kathmandu Valley and some parts of the eastern Terai Region. The Nepali Congress Party won in other parts of the Terai Region and in western Nepal. The National Democratic Party (Chand) won three seats and the National Democratic Party (Thapa) won only one seat. The four members of those parties, six Nepal Sadbhavana Party members, and independents were expected to join the moderate Nepali Congress Party. All leftist elements under the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) umbrella were likely to form a solid opposition in Parliament to the Nepali Congress Party government.*
The new House of Representatives included thirteen members of the dissolved Rashtriya Panchayat, five Muslims, seven women, and six members of the Parliament that had been dissolved in 1960. Although the number of women representatives was much lower than was hoped for, Muslim representation was comparable to their proportion of the population. Also notable was the performance of the ethnic or regional parties, in particular the Terai-based Nepal Sadbhavana Party, which polled 4 percent of the valid votes, allowing it to claim the status of a national party. Out of the five seats in Kathmandu, the Nepali Congress Party won one seat; the rest were swept by the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist). The average age of the newly elected members of the House of Representatives was forty-three.*
Kathmandu citizens made it clear that they had enough of political dynasties. The son and wife of Nepali Congress Party figurehead Ganesh Man Singh ran for two of the high-profile seats; both were defeated by communist candidates. In the prestigious contest for a seat in Kathmandu, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) general secretary, Madan Bhandari, defeated interim Prime Minister K.P. Bhattarai. The poor showing of the Nepali Congress Party in the urban areas may also be attributed to the fact that, given that the communists had been banned for thirty years, the party did not see them as potential opposition and was overconfident.*
The continuing transition from a partyless panchayat system to a multiparty democracy was relatively peaceful, although there were some incidents of sporadic violence. Six deaths in preelection violence were reported, but no election-related deaths were confirmed on polling day. Police enforced a curfew during the long wait for election results. Because of election irregularities and violence, the Election Commission — which enjoyed the confidence of all the parties — ordered repolling at 44 of 8,225 polling centers, affecting 31 constituencies.*
In response to the interim government's invitation to international observers, a host of Asians, Europeans, and North Americans journeyed to Kathmandu. Among the observers was a sixtyfour member international observation delegation, representing twenty-two countries, which was organized by Nepal's National Election Observation Committee. The committee was an offshoot of Nepal's Forum for the Protection of Human Rights. The international delegation concluded that the elections generally were conducted in a fair, free, and open manner and that the parties were able to campaign unimpaired. Complaints were received that equal and adequate access to radio and television was denied, however, and that the code of conduct and campaign spending limitations were violated. The delegation also recognized that, as confirmed by the Election Commission, from 5 to 10 percent of eligible voters were not registered and that there were some inaccuracies in voter lists.*
On May 29, 1991, a Nepali Congress Party government was installed with G.P. Koirala as prime minister. The first session of Parliament was held on June 20. The new government faced two enormous tasks, both of which concerned India: the negotiation of a new trade and transit treaty, and the exploitation of Nepal's only major natural resource, water, for hydroelectric power for purchase by India. Further, although the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) faction wanted to end recruitment of the Gurkhas into the British and Indian armies, the Nepali Congress Party wanted neither to outrage the Gurkhas nor to deprive the country of the foreign remittances sent by the soldiers.*
Nepal’s Government in the 1990s
The dramatic events of the beginning months of 1990 marked a watershed in Nepal's political system. The quest for a multiparty, representative form of government had begun on December 15, 1960, when an unprecedented royal coup d'état dismissed the constitutionally elected government of Bishweshwar Prasad (B.P.) Koirala. King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev abrogated the constitution and suspended all guarantees of fundamental rights and political activities. The traditional partyless panchayat system of local and national assemblies imposed by fiat was found unsatisfactory in the face of the Nepalese desire to secure legitimate political and human rights and establish accountability in government. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Monarchical opposition toward political parties or groups had been so vigorous that the centrist Nepali Congress Party, the oldest political party, carried on its activities from exile in India. Other political parties, including the splintered leftist groups, either operated from abroad or were disbanded. Although political parties were banned and at times their leaders were incarcerated or forced to go underground, they remained a vital force in sensitizing and mobilizing public opinion against government authoritarianism.
The Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), popularly known as the prodemocracy movement, finally succeeded in early 1990 in restoring democratic rights denied for decades by the powerful palace clique. In April 1990, tens of thousands of Nepalese marched on the royal palace in Kathmandu, demonstrating against King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, who was traditionally revered as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Police and troops shot and killed many of the marchers. As shock waves reverberated through Nepal, long an oasis of civil order in South Asia, the king quickly scrapped the panchayat system, lifted the ban on political parties, and formed an interim government from among the ranks of the veteran opposition leaders under the premiership of Nepali Congress leader Krishna Prasad (K.P.) Bhattarai.
The interim government, which represented the spectrum of public opinion, was directed to conduct fair and free elections within a stipulated period under a new constitution framed by an independent constitutional commission appointed by the Council of Ministers — the Constitution Recommendation Commission. Although the constitution was proclaimed from the throne, its development, unlike past constitutional edicts, was through a democratic process in which the interim Council of Ministers served as a legislature. Nepal's human rights records — poor before the success of the prodemocracy movement — also improved.
During the prodemocracy movement, a range of political parties acted in concert and rapidly commanded the loyalty and imagination of the overwhelming majority of the urban population. This unprecedented expression of national unity and the government's subsequent attempts to suppress the movement triggered the reactions of major and regional world powers including the United States, Japan, and India, and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. Their timely expressions of concern and threats to reevaluate their commitments of economic and technical assistance both bolstered the movement and served as a damper against the monarchy's continued use of excessive force to contain it.
Strategically wedged between China and India, Nepal has always been fearful of foreign intervention and has tried to maintain equal distance from these two powerful neighbors in a continuing effort to protect its sovereignty. Nepal's choice not to align with any superpower facilitated grants of economic assistance from diverse sources, including the United States, the Soviet Union, India, China, and Japan. Nepal maintained a high profile in various international organizations and activities and was a charter member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
Although the vast majority of the Nepalese population was illiterate, Nepal's printed media has been influential as well as strident. Before the introduction of the 1990 constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, several stringent publication and censorship laws limited freedom of expression.
Nepal’s Government in the 2000s
In the early 2000s, while the king was still in power and the monarchy still existed, the political system was loosely based on the British parliamentary system. The king was head of state. He and the Council of Ministers held executive powers. There were two legislative bodies: the National Council and the House of Representatives. Members of the National Council were appointed by the House, the king, and an electoral college. Members of the House of Representatives were elected by popular vote for 5-year terms. The political party with a majority in the House of Representatives appointed the prime minister. The judiciary was headed by the Supreme Court, and was composed of a network of appellate courts and district courts. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]
Nepal’s constitution promulgated in November 1990 was technically Nepal’s fundamental law in the 2000s before the abolition of the monarchy in 2006 and 2008. The constitution established a constitutional monarchy and guaranteed certain rights to all citizens, protects individual liberties, and established Nepal as a “multiethnic, multilingual, democratic, independent, indivisible, sovereign, Hindu and Constitutional Monarchical Kingdom” with a parliamentary government and an independent judiciary. However King Gyanendra (r. 2001– ) dissolved both houses of parliament in May 2002 as well as three subsequent interim governments composed of a prime minister and a Council of Ministers. An interim government was suspended on February 1, 2005, and King Gyanendra ruled with full executive powers after that, assisted by an appointed 10-person crisis cabinet. A state of emergency established by the king on February 1, 2005, was lifted on April 29, 2005, but civil rights and liberties remain restricted. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005 **]
In early 2007, after a peace agreement was signed with the Maoist rebels, ending the civil war that began in 1996, an interim government for Nepal was created that was headed by a prime minister and Council of Ministers who were selected by the country’s eight main political parties — including the Maoist rebels. The interim parliament was a 329-member House of Representatives. The judiciary consisted of a Supreme Court, sixteen appellate courts, seventy-five district courts, and the Judicial Council, which oversaw the appointment of judges.
According to “Countries of the World and Their Leaders”: “A Maoist insurgency — punctuated by cease-fires in 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2006 — has been ongoing since 1996. After King Gyanendra announced the reinstatement of Parliament on April 24, 2006, the Maoists declared a three-month unilateral ceasefire on April 26, 2006 which the new Koirala government reciprocated on May 3, 2006. After that Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists have signed five agreements, culminating in the comprehensive peace agreement of November 21, 2006, effectively ending the insurgency. However, Maoist violence and intimidation have continued since the agreement. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook, Gale, 2009]
“The main agenda of the SPA and the Maoists was to hold a Constituent Assembly (CA) election. The Constituent Assembly was set up draft and promulgate a new constitution defining the future political system in Nepal. The interim constitution, adopted on January 15, 2007, expressed full commitment to democratic ideals and norms, including competitive multiparty democracy, civil liberties, fundamental human rights, adult enfranchisement, periodic elections, press freedom, an independent judiciary, and the rule of law. The interim constitution also guaranteed the basic rights of Nepali citizens to formulate a constitution for themselves and to participate in the Constituent Assembly in an environment free from fear. The interim constitution transferred all powers of the King as head of state to the prime minister and stripped the King of any ceremonial constitutional role. Under the interim constitution, the fate of the monarchy will be decided by the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly. The interim Parliament is a unicameral house.
“After promulgation of the interim constitution, many socially marginalized ethnic communities, including the Madhesis of the lowland Terai, began widespread protests against the proposed proportional representation system incorporated in the new constitution. After a Maoist shot and killed one of the demonstrators, violent protests erupted with clashes between police and demonstrators and attacks on government facilities in at least 10 districts, resulting in the death of over 30 people. Prime Minister Koirala, in an address to the nation on February 7, 2007 promised to amend the constitution to meet the demands of the Terai people. However, the situation remains tense, with continuing protests and violence.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (ntb.gov.np), Nepal Government National Portal (nepal.gov.np), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022