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  • The Return of Party Politics in Nepal
  • Lok Raj Baral (bio)

The prodemocracy movement that arose in Nepal in 1990 was the first peaceful mass movement in the history of that country. Although its roots can be traced back quite far, its success was sudden and dramatic, with far-reaching consequences. Even the initiators of the movement were not as confident as they appeared to be about the direction of the rapidly moving course of events. Indeed, the swift collapse of Nepal's seemingly stable authoritarian monarchy surprised most observers. With an annual per capita income of $180 and an adult literacy rate of no more than 40 percent, Nepal is among the world's least-developed countries. Its history, moreover, did not seem to give cause for much hope about a transition to democracy. Although an elected democratic government came to power for the first time in 1959 under the Nepali Congress (NC) with B.P. Koirala as prime minister, King Mahendra (r. 1955-72) had little inclination to tolerate it. In December 1960, the king dismissed the new government, jailed its leaders, banned political parties, suspended the constitution, and restored the autocratic power of the throne.

There followed three decades of partyless government under the four-tiered panchayat (assembly) system of representative bodies, which was justified as more in keeping with Nepali traditions. In fact, the panchayat system was frequently manipulated by both King Mahendra and his son, the current monarch, King Birendra. Prolonged public demonstrations in May 1979 forced the regime to schedule a national referendum to choose between a multiparty system and revision of the [End Page 121] panchayat system. In this vote, held one year later, the status quo—and the king—won. Although modest constitutional changes were subsequently introduced, the monarchy continued to dominate the politics of the Himalayan kingdom until the dramatic events of 1989-90.

The Democratic Movement

On 14 November 1989, in a speech marking the birthday of Jawarharlal Nehru, Nepali Congress leader Ganesh Man Singh lashed out at the royal regime and even the king himself, declaring that the time had come to launch a mass movement for the restoration of democracy. Not only had the king annoyed India, Nepal's gigantic neighbor to the south, with recent decisions on transit and trade questions, said Singh, but he was now threatening to isolate Nepal from the unfolding trends favoring democracy across the world. Coming against the backdrop of the Gorbachev era in the Soviet Union and the subsequent collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Singh's remarks galvanized Nepal's democratic dissidents. India's coolness, plus the efforts of international campaigns for human rights, were turning the royal regime into a global and regional outcast and thereby strengthening the hand of the democratic opposition.

The changing alignment of political forces within the country also helped. The powerful communists (who are divided into four separate parties) began to echo the NC's call for the restoration of liberal democracy, despite their penchant for orthodox-Marxist clichés. Some moderate communists had already shown their preference for a multiparty system, making possible the prospective joint movement for democracy, while a few others continued their decades-old custom of condemning antiregime movements for being tools of India. Such divisions among its opponents had worked to the royal regime's benefit for over two decades, and had helped to render the 1980 referendum a lost opportunity.

This scenario changed in the 1980s, however, as leftist parties grew more pragmatic and the classic royal strategy of "divide and rule" began to fail. The regime's room for maneuver was shrinking as international opinion began to place more emphasis on democracy and human rights. These developments put the regime on the defensive just as its lack of any legitimizing ideology and failure to fulfill its promises concerning development were catching up with it. Even its supporters from as far back as the 1980 referendum were growing disillusioned with its democratic facade. By the late 1980s, the banned parties, notably the NC and the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) and its offspring, took the lead in exposing the hollowness of the royal regime.

The movement for transition...


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pp. 121-133
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