Nepal’s democratic struggle is long but political gains still under threat

Self-serving politicians devoid of principles make little effort to improve public life and national status, states the article.

Nishan Khatiwada

Nishan Khatiwada

The Kathmandu Post


Post Illustration

February 21, 2023

KATHMANDU – On Falgun 7, 2007BS, the 104-year-long Rana regime ended in Nepal as the 1950 movement ushered in democracy. Next year, the Interim Government of Nepal Act 1951 was promulgated.

It was a landmark achievement. But since then, Nepal’s democracy has experienced many trials and tribulations.

Lok Raj Baral, a political analyst, says the establishment of democracy in 1951 opened “our door to light from darkness—of our freedom, democracy and aspiration.”

The foundation for political changes laid in the 1950s, and the subsequent referendum, establishment of multiparty democracy, Maoist insurgency, and adoption of federalism shaped the path of democracy, political historian Rajesh Gautam says. However, the coup by King Mahendra and the imposition of the partyless Panchayat rule in 1960, among similar other autocratic moves, hindered democracy from flourishing.

It took years to hold general elections after a democratic system was adopted in 1951. The first elections were held only in 1959. Nepali Congress, a key democratic force involved in the anti-Rana movement, won two-thirds of seats in the first parliament and led the government, with BP Koirala as the first elected prime minister of Nepal. But the excitement fizzled out in 18 months when King Mahendra staged a coup in 1960 to dissolve the parliament, the majority government and imposed the partyless Panchayat system.

“A reason was the feud that had appeared between some democratic leaders. The parties were yet to mature. So the king got the chance,” said Baral. “The country was again pushed into the darkness for the next three decades.”

The political parties were banned during the Panchayat era. Their activities were restricted. As the dream of democracy was short-lived, the Nepali society was not accustomed to democratic freedom. As a result, the referendum in 1980 went in favour of the partyless system.

“Between 1951 and 1960, many models of change and development were proposed, but the government and political parties failed to put them into practice. King Mahendra used most of them to suit his interests under the Panchayat polity,” said Gautam.

Though the aspirations for democracy were shattered and parties banned, political organisations carried on with their underground activities. Anti-monarchy activities were punishable at that time. “There was a long political movement [though underground] to restore democracy in the country,” Baral said, recalling Nepalis’ long struggle for freedom.

Democracy was reinstated in 1990 finally, after parties’ 30 years of opposition to the political system imposed by King Mahendra. Nepal instituted a multiparty democracy system with a constitutional monarchy. A new constitution was promulgated and elections were held in 1991.

After the House of Representatives election that year, the Nepali Congress formed a majority government. But the intra-party feuds in Congress led to the snap elections in 1994, in which the party was defeated by the communist CPN-UML. The elections did not give any party a majority. There was a hung parliament, leading to a start of a coalition culture in Nepal’s democratic practice.

The UML formed a minority government under the leadership of Manmohan Adhikari which lasted for nine months. After that many governments were formed and dissolved in a short period of time.

“After 1990, the political parties got embroiled in coalition politics, which weakened them ideologically,” said Gautam. “The first interim government formed after the 1990 changes brought up the constitution and held elections. But intra-party feuds kept democracy at stake. There was instability.”

Nepal’s democracy was largely impacted by the Maoist insurgency that began in 1996 and lasted ten years. Even as the country was devastated by war, Nepal held the parliamentary election in 1999. The Congress again got the majority to lead the government but intra-party feuds had reached the tipping point.

King Gyanendra took the assault upon democracy a step further. He sacked the government, dismissing prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, on February 1, 2005, a state of emergency was declared in the country, and the army started marching on the streets. The autocratic regime began again.

“Democracy was weakened by the factional feud between leaders of political parties such as Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and Girija Prasad Koirala in the grand old party Congress. The governments were unstable. Parties were weakened ideologically after 1990. The power went to the king,” said Baral.

But the society had gotten the taste of freedom and democracy by now. It did not accept the autocratic monarchy at all. So a new movement began in 2006, when hundreds of thousands of people from different walks of life came to the streets to overthrow the monarchy once and for all.

“The general public resisted fiercely so he could not hold it for too long,” Baral said.

The Constituent Assembly election held in 2008 established the Maoists as the largest political force in the country. When the assembly failed to deliver the constitution, the second CA election was held in 2013.

Many governments were formed and collapsed. Many communist leaders headed the government, but they failed to bring the stability needed to institutionalise democracy.

“The Maoists promised they would be a flagbearer of change, but they too got mired in the mad rush for power,” Gautam added.

The Assembly finally promulgated the constitution in 2015, defining Nepal as a secular, federal republican country.

According to Gautam, the leaders boast that they wrote the constitution, but democracy is institutionalised only when they follow the constitution. “Our political parties have proved to be poor in utilising the constitution. If this situation continues, preservation and institutionalisation of democracy will be a tough task,” he said.

KP Sharma Oli dissolved the House elected in 2017 twice. He was removed with the order of the Supreme Court and Sher Bahadur Deuba led the coalition from July 2021.

Besides, corrupt and immoral activities of the politicians in power also endangered democracy often, and sometimes anti-constitutional moves attacked it. Unnecessary ordinances, using the backdoor to enter Parliament, and advocating regressive changes, which have been the common practice recently, endanger democracy, according to the analysts.

Factionalisation has also made politics more unpredictable.

“Political parties functioned as multiple groups after 2007, and also after the 1990 development. When the infighting was not so intense as to shatter a party into pieces. With time, factionalism only got worse,” Gautam said.

It’s been a common perception that politicians and political parties have failed to uphold democracy.

“Our country has not been able to institutionalise the political gains. The leaders lack principled stances and we suffer from instability due to their lack of vision and commitment,” Baral said.

Baral thinks Nepali rulers are fortunate to get the public that has always been supportive of progressive changes.

Gautam finds it frustrating that politicians today seem to have forgotten why democracy was established decades ago. “The leaders are self-centred. They don’t care about the prosperity of the country and the public,” he said. “This puts democracy at risk.”

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