History and Government

History: Nepal was created from an amalgam of small principalities in 1768 under King Prithvi Narayan Shah. Under the control of a hereditary king, Nepal then became a ‘buffer state’ between the British empire and the territories to the north. The main instrument of British rule from the mid-19th century onwards was a hereditary prime minister drawn from the Rana family. The country became formally independent in 1923, but it was not until 1947 (the year of Indian independence) and the total withdrawal of the British from the region that Nepal achieved genuine independence. In 1951, the Ranas, who were still in power, were overthrown in a coup organised by the Nepali Congress, and a hereditary monarchy was restored under King Tribhuvan.

Four years later he was succeeded by his son, King Mahendra. In 1959 Mahendra established a parliamentary constitution, and the ensuing elections were won by the Nepali Congress (led by B P Koirala) which had played a key role in the re-establishment of the monarchy. A year later, however, a royal coup led to the banning of all political parties and the establishment of a constitution based on the traditional village councils (the Panchayat system). Mahendra ruled until his death in 1972 when he was succeeded by his son Birendra.

Birendra persevered with the Panchayat system, bolstered initially by the result of a referendum which gave a narrow majority in favour of its continued use. In the face of substantial and growing opposition, which increased steadily throughout the 1980s, Birendra resorted to a mix of repression, censorship and cosmetic administrative reforms to defuse the situation. In 1986, a member of the minority Newari community, Marich Man Singh Shrestha, became Prime Minister for the first time. Then, in 1990, growing public unrest forced the King to accept political parties and introduce a draft constitution allowing for direct elections to a bicameral parliament.

The first two polls under the new system, held in 1991 and 1994, were won by the Congress Party (linked to the Indian party of the same name) and the United Marxist-Leninist Party (UML) respectively. Both parties are rife with factional infighting with the result that Nepal lacked a truly stable government throughout the 1990s. The Congress Party was returned to office once again at the most recent poll in May 1999. Since then Nepal has been consumed by more dramatic events. The Maoist-inspired Nepalese Communist Party pulled out of constitutional politics in 1996 and launched an armed struggle, roughly akin to the campaign conducted by the Peruvian movement Sendero Luminoso. The guerrillas have attracted large-scale support from the impoverished peasantry and have over 10,000 personnel under arms.

In June 2001, the monarchy, the bedrock of the Nepali state, almost self-destructed through a bizarre and bloody incident when the heir apparent to the throne, Crown Prince Dipendra, went berserk in the royal palace and murdered several members of his immediate family, including King Birendra, before committing suicide. The senior remaining Royal, Gyanenda, assumed the throne. The new monarch lacked the popularity of his predecessor amongst ordinary Nepalese and, along with his government, faced some formidable problems, including the Maoist insurgency, a squabbling parliament and a very weak economy.

He also inherited a new Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, after his predecessor, the deeply unpopular Girija Prasad Koirala was forced out of office. By late 2002, there had been little improvement on any front. The insurgency has spread to the capital: the guerrillas now operate in every part of the country. And the collapse of the tourist sector continues to undermine the economy as a whole. In October 2002, Gyanendra sacked premier Deuba and the Cabinet. He assumed some executive powers himself and appointed a new Prime Minister, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, who is seen as a close ally of the monarch. National elections due for mid-November have been postponed.

Nepal has few immediate problems abroad. Relations with India, which reached crisis point during the mid-1990s when the Indians imposed a trade embargo, have since improved. Outstanding border disputes have been settled (as with the Makhali River basin) or are in abeyance. Relations with Nepal’s other large neighbour, China, have also been good. Nepal is still coping with up to 100,000 refugees who crossed the border from its third immediate neighbour, Bhutan, to escape political strife in their own country. But all of Nepal’s neighbours are concerned about the consequences of the widening insurgency and the possible fall-out.

Government: Nepal is a constitutional monarchy. Although more power has been vested in the monarch than is customary under such a system, the main centre of legislative and executive power is the bicameral parliament comprising the 205-seat Pratinidhi Sabha (House of the States), whose members are directly elected to serve a five-year term, and the 60-seat Rashtriya Sabha (House of States).

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Information provided by Nepal Tourism Board.


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