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.
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.
The 1986 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.
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 Tarai Region, but no Muslims were elected.
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 Tarai Region, certain party members, as well as some communists, did very well and were returned to office in substantial numbers.
The 1991 Elections
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).
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 Tarai Region. The Nepali Congress Party won in other parts of the Tarai 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 Tarai-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.
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