Karl-Heinz Kraemer
Department of Political Science of South Asia, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg

 Elections in Nepal: 1999 and Before

In: Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC) (ed.). Human Rights Yearbook 2000. Kathmandu: INSEC, pp. 29-47.

1 Political system

The constitution of 1990 is the legal base of Nepal’s current political system. It has been drafted within a few months by representatives of the Nepali Congress (NC) and the left parties that had jointly organized the people’s movement of early 1990. These people tried to lay the foundations for a democratic system, but they, at the same time, avoided radical changes. This resulted in a number compromises with the conservative forces. The most serious change was that one from a partyless to a multiparty system. Another important change concerned the monarchy. King Birendra became a constitutional monarch who in almost all actions depends upon the prior recommendations of the democratically elected government. This means that the original aim of the 1950 revolutionaries of the NC, which had been foiled by the Delhi compromise had been achieved 40 years later.

One of the striking features of the current constitution’s preamble is the special emphasis of public will. The sovereignty lies in the hands of the people, and the constitution has been drafted with the greatest possible participation of the masses.1 Adult franchise, a parliamentary system of government, constitutional monarchy and the system of multiparty democracy are emphasized as cornerstones of the constitution. The rule of law shall be a living reality on the basis of freedom and equality for all Nepali citizens, and it shall be guaranteed by an independent and competent system of justice.

One of the constitutional features most restricting for social development has been the concession towards conservative forces in the definition of the kingdom (adhirajya):

Nepal is a multiethnic, multilingual, democratic, independent, indivisible, sovereign, Hindu and constitutional monarchical kingdom. (article 4)

New are the terms multiethnic, multilingual and democratic, aspects that had been stressed during the movement and at the time of constitution drafting. But the makers of the constitution rejected the idea of a secular state which had so vehemently been demanded by leftist parties and by many non-Hindu groups.2 This concession to the economically, socially and politically dominating high caste Hindu population is mentioned in the preliminary part of the constitution above all other fundamental rights. What does it mean for example that article 11 guarantees the equality of all citizens, if the state has before been declared as a Hindu state? This means that not only the religion, but also Hindu social order, Hindu values, Hindu ways of thinking and living, and Hindu politics with all their effects are binding for state and society.

Article 6 of the constitution has been seen by critics in a similar way. It defines Nepali, the mother tongue of the centrally dominating higher Hindu castes, as language of the nation and official language (rastra bhasa and sarkari kamkajko bhasa). All other mother tongues of the country are named "national languages" (rastriya bhasa). They shall be preserved and promoted by the government (article 26), even though little has been done so far. Critics claim that this language policy gives the speakers of national languages hardly any chance in competition with those, who have Nepali as their mother tongue, and discriminates them in politics, administration and society.

The current executive and legislative system is very similar to that of western democracies. The king is sharing power only formally. The legislative consists of a bicameral parliament, the House of Representatives (Pratinidhi sabha) with 205 members directly elected by the people and the national assembly (Rastriya sabha) with 60 members. The king is required to appoint the leader of the strongest party in the house of representatives as Prime Minister. The other ministers are to be appointed by the king on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The thus constituted council of ministers is responsible not to the king but to the house of representatives.

Part 17 of the constitution (articles 112-114) sets fundamental rules for the formation and recognition of political parties that had been banned in Nepal for so many years. The parties are required to organize themselves along democratic rules, to have their office bearers elected at least once every five years and to have at least five percent female candidates for elections to the house of representatives.3 Article 113 (3) gives the election commission the right to bar parties from elections, which are formed on the basis of religion, community, caste, tribe or region:

The Election Commission shall not register any political organisation or party if any Nepali citizen is discriminated against in becoming a member on the basis of religion, caste, tribe, language or sex or if the name, objectives, insignia or flag is of such a nature that it is religious, communal or tends to fragment the country.

The Nepali state has used this very interpretative article several times to control non-Hindu parties and organizations. In 1991 the Election Commission withheld the recognition of three parties representing the special interests of ethnic or other social groups that were discriminated against by the Hindu state. For the mid-term elections of November 1994 this number grew to six.4 Critics say that this article 113 is nonsense, since the state is declared to be a Hindu state and so it is communal itself. In any case, the Election Commission so far only rejected those parties that confronted the state communalism with ethnic communalism.5

But irrespective of such shortcomings has the system change of 1990 provided the conditions required for the development of civil society in Nepal. The political power has been transferred from the hands of the king to those of elected representatives of the people. Today the elected politicians and their political parties are responsible for the implementation of democracy and social changes. Within the first two years after the movement of 1990 three parties came to the limelight, while the other parties more and more lost importance and influence. Those three leading parties were the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), below shortly CPN-UML, which had been formed in early 1991 by the unification of two splinter groups of the former Nepal Communist Party, and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) or National Democratic Party, the party of the erstwhile panchas, the politicians of the partyless panchayat system.

2 Political forces

In a society characterized by poverty as well as cultural and socio-religious inequalities the people are looking for a kind of political representation that opens up perspectives and hopes changing their fate. The masses in general had been deeply disappointed by the NC, and so they elected the party out of government in 1994. The NC is not only suffering from a distinct turn to the right, but it is also shaken by deep rooted interior problems. The few remaining personalities of the first hour – Girija Prasad Koirala, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and Ganesh Man Singh who died in 1997 – have been fighting each other publicly punching below the belt since the elections of 1991, when the then interim Prime Minister Bhattarai was not elected and had to give way for Koirala. Singh finally even left the party, Bhattarai handed over the NC presidency to Koirala and the latter facing a possible split of the party laid the leading role in parliament into the hands of a younger generation. But also the experiment to make Sher Bahadur Deuba the party leader for the years to come poorly failed. The one and a half years of his coalition government based on a majority of only one vote, overshadowed by corruption, nepotism and abuse of authority, led to the absolute low for the young Nepali democracy.

All political parties are facing problems with implementing intra-party democracy. Confining our view to the three leading parties we see that NC and RPP elect their presidents in a democratic manor, but then endow them with enormous power. The persons responsible for the ideological line of the party, like the members of the central working committees, are not elected but nominated by the party president on his own decision. Bhattarai even delayed these nominations for many months at a time of greatest conflict within the party. Only within the CPN-UML the central committee is directly elected by the national congress, towards which it is responsible. The undemocratic structure of the leading parties makes the introduction of a broad based and equal participation of all strata of society even more difficult. Only the established party elites, which in all parties belong to the Bahuns and Chetris, decide if other groups of society are allowed to participate or not, for example when election candidates have to be nominated. This is for the disadvantage of those groups that already had been disadvantaged before the advent of democracy: the ethnic groups, the so-called untouchables, the women and the Tarai population.

With greater parts of the people still having no positive perspectives, the leading parties steadily lose control. One of the best symbols is the fate of the NC. Being the strongest party in Parliament in 1991 with an absolute majority of seats and winning the local elections of 1992 with about 60 % of the votes, the party has been falling into an abyss. In November 1994 the NC lost its majority in parliament and in May 1997 it was swept out of the local bodies securing only 30 % of the votes.6 An end is not to be seen. The split of the CPN-UML in March 1998 again made the NC the strongest party in parliament. Girija Prasad Koirala became prime minister for a second time, first as head of an NC minority government, then as leader of a coalition with the CPN-ML, the splinter group of the CPN-UML, and finally as prime minister of a coalition of NC, CPN-UML and Nepal Sadbhavana Party (NSP). As the 1999 general elections approached, Koirala even presented his party rival Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, who so far had lost three elections, as the coming prime minister of Nepal. One will have to see if this brings more unity into the NC. Younger leaders have already shown signs of disappointment.

The conservative forces represented by the RPP had been in an upward trend since the local elections of 1992, irrespective of its participation in the Deuba government, for whose failure the RPP especially had been responsible. But like the NC, the RPP, too, is split into two camps headed by Lokendra Bahadur Chand and Surya Bahadur Thapa respectively. Both of them led coalition governments in 1997/98. First, Chand was prime minister of the absurd coalition government of RPP and CPN-UML forced by the CPN-UML rebel Bam Dev Gautam. After half a year, this coalition was brought down on the intention of Chand’s party colleague and president, Surya Bahadur Thapa, who then headed a coalition government of RPP, NC and NSP. This government was again brought down, when Chand split his party reviving the RPP (Chand) in early 1998.

The main beneficiary of the negative trend of the NC has been the CPN-UML. Several reasons can be mentioned in this context. Nepal's masses are living in great poverty. It was under the first government of Girija Prasad Koirala that the people recognised, that the NC was no longer a party representing the interests of the poverty stricken and backward strata of society. This position became more and more filled by the CPN-UML whose ideology is more concentrated on the hardships of the poor. This had already been decisive for the party's success in the parliamentary elections of 1994. The minority government of Man Mohan Adhikari, which lasted for only nine months, initiated such great a number of populist measures in advantage of the rural masses, that the NC saw no other chance but to overthrow the government, if it did not want to loose possible mid-term elections. Even the later irrational coalition of the CPN-UML with the rightist RPP did not bring any harm to the party in the eyes of the people, as the great success in the local elections of 1997 has shown.

But the politics of the CPN-UML, too, became more and more guided by power ambitions. One prove may have been the coalition with the RPP accepting a former pancha as Prime Minister. Another evidence is the intra-party struggle and later split of the party initiated by Bam Dev Gautam and Chandra Prakash Mainali. For sure, the party still has internal problems with the integration of radical communist forces into a more and more social-democratic party conception. So, similar to the NC and the RPP the CPN-UML is suffering from internal tensions, conflicts and power struggles. Such insufficiencies of the leading parties are increasingly provoking activities of radical extra-parliamentary forces. The best example may be the so-called people's war (jana yuddha) of the Maoists with its growing effectiveness in recent times.

3 Electoral processes

In Nepal, the principle of universal, equal, direct, and secret suffrage is applied. Every Nepali citizen who has attained the age of 18 years and who is a permanent resident of one election constituency shall have the right to vote in this constituency. Every voter is entitled to vote only in the election constituency where his name is registered in the voters lists. Voting is optional.

These voters lists have been a low point in Nepal’s electoral processes: names have been missing, others have been included into several lists. The introduction of voting cards has only just begun, but it can become a practical way for better controlling and fairer elections in the future.

There are two Houses of Parliament, the Pratinidhi Sabha (House of Representatives) and the Rastriya Sabha (National Assembly). The Pratinidhi Sabha has 205 members directly elected for a term of five years. By-elections take place if an MP dies or if an MP has been elected from more than one constituency. An Anti-Defection law went into effect in October 1997 to prevent the frequent party defections. It requires the backing of at least 40 percent of the parliamentary party in case of party splitting. Else the defecting MPs will loose their mandate. This is also congruent with article 49 (f) of the constitution according to which an MP’s seat becomes vacant, if the party of which he/she was a member when elected provides notification that he/she has abandoned the party. The special regulation of the Anti-Defection Law may seem reasonable after so much misuse in the 1990s, but it puts a curb on their legislative freedom as MPs. According to Nepal’s plurality election system, the candidates are directly elected in each constituency and not indirectly by a party list.

The Rastriya Sabha is a permanent House. The tenure of office of its 60 members is six years with one third expiring every two years. 35 of its members, including at least three women members, are elected by the Pratinidhi Sabha by single-transferable vote. 15 members, three from each of the five Development Regions, are elected by an electoral college consisting of the Chief (Pramukh) and Deputy Chief (Upapramukh) of the local authorities and the Chief, Deputy Chief and the members of the district authorities. Another ten members are nominated by the King from amongst persons of high reputation.

Candidates must be citizens of Nepal, must have attained 25 years of age for the Pratinidhi Sabha and 35 years of age for the Rastriya Sabha, should not be disqualified under any law, and should not hold an office of profit paid out of a government fund. No person shall be a member of both Houses simultaneously. Persons who are insane or of unsound mind, and persons who have been declared insolvent and bankrupt are also excluded from candidacy. Candidates may stand as independents or nominees of political parties. There are no additional restrictions like a specified number of signatures or some kind of money deposit.

Symbols are assigned to each candidate, as it is usual in South Asia because of the high rate of illiteracy. The ballot paper given to the voter contains the election symbols only but no names of the candidates in the constituency. The Election Commission allots reserved symbols to the candidates of the recognized parties which have secured a minimum 3% of the total votes cast in the last election to the House of Representatives and have fielded at least 5% women candidates. The reserved symbols cannot be allotted to other parties or candidates even if no candidates are fielded from the respective recognized parties. Unreserved symbols are allotted to new political parties and to those parties who have not secured 3% of the total votes cast in the last election to the House of Representatives. These symbols can be allotted to independent candidates in those constituencies only where there are no candidates of these parties. There is another group of symbols declared by the Election Commission as free symbols which are allotted to independent candidates.

The Pratinidhi Sabha is elected by plurality system in single-member constituencies. Article 45 of the constitution fixes the number of constituencies to 205. There are 75 administrative districts in Nepal of which currently 13 are so thinly populated that they each represent only one seat in the House of Representatives. Of the remaining districts, the allocation of constituencies ranges from two to seven depending on the size of population. It is the task of the Constituency Delimitation Commission to determine the area of the constituencies in these districts. The delimitation of the constituencies always remains valid until the following national census which takes place every ten years, the next to be hold in 2001.

The elections are conducted, supervised, directed, and controlled by the Election Commission appointed by the King on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council for a term of six years. The Constitutional Council, as regulated in Article 117 of the Constitution, consists of the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Chairman of the National Assembly, and the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives (i.e. the leader of the opposition party with the greatest number of seats). The Chief Election Commissioner and the other Election Commissioners must not be members of any political party.

Since Election Commission and Election Constituency Delimitation Commission are formed on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, the latter has great influence upon composition and working style of these important constitutional bodies. The composition of the Constitutional Council – Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of the Pratiniddhi Sabha, Chairman of the Rastriya Sabha and Leader of the Opposition in the Pratiniddhi Sabha – seems reasonable on the first sight, but a view on the party affiliation of these positions in the 1990s makes clear that it has mainly been a one-sided affair, i.e. that of the NC.








Prime Minister







Chief Justice


Speaker Pratinidhi Sabha







Chairman Rastriya Sabha







Opposition Leader







The Chief Justice should be an independent person, but in fact he, too, is a political person with a close affiliation to a political party and that, too, has been NC. The reason becomes clear if one realizes that also the Chief Justice is nominated on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. In this special case the Minister of Justice, i.e. a further member of the ruling party, and a judge of the Supreme Court are included into the Constitutional Council. Thus, the Constitutional Council in its present form is more a facade to pretend impartiality. With its far reaching power it becomes a further instrument of the ruling party to influence the decisions of such important constitutional bodies like the Election Commission or the Election Constituency Delimitation Commission.

Election observation, first introduced in Nepal in 1986, has been an impressive feature during the elections of 1991, 1994 and 1999. All these elections have been monitored by several independent national and international observer teams.

4 Parliamentary elections 1999

4.1 Political situation before the elections

The elections of November 1994 had caused a power vacuum. No party had a clear majority in parliament, and none of them was able to fit into a necessary system of coalition governments. As a consequence hardly any government could stay in office for more than one year. The small third force, the conservative RPP, held the balance of power and for some time brought almost all her MPs into highest government positions. It only lost in influence when NC chairman Girija Prasad Koirala became Prime Minister for a second term in April 1998, when the NC became the strongest party again after the split of the CPN-UML.

After some time of NC minority government backed from outside by the CPN-ML, the latter formally joined Koirala’s government in August 1998. This coalition government was crisis-prone right from the beginning. CPN-ML General Secretary Bam Dev Gautam soon remembered his leftist attitude and distanced more and more from Koirala’s forceful way of handling the Maoist issue giving the Prime Minister one ultimatum after the other for changing his mind. Koirala, on the other hand, not only hold discussions with his coalition partner but also with the oppositional CPN-UML.

The coalition finally broke off when Koirala announced on 11 December to hold new election in March 1999. When the ML-ministers commonly resigned, the Prime Minister handed in his resignation and asked King Birendra to dissolve parliament and to hold new elections. This was already the fourth time since mid 1993 that a Prime Minister recommended the King to take this step. When Girija Prasad Koirala had taken this step first in 1993, the Supreme Court dismissed the complaints of the CPN-UML. The same Supreme Court sustained the suit of the oppositional NC, when the then Prime Minister Man Mohan Adhikari recommended the dissolution of parliament and holding of new elections in mid 1995.

These contradictory decisions of the Supreme Court caused general uncertainty about the interpretation of article 53 (4) of the constitution. The next time, in early 1998, King Birendra did not dare to take his own decision and asked the Supreme Court for advice. The latter gave the efforts to form another government priority to the dissolution of parliament. So, in December 1998, the King had no greater problems. A new coalition government was formed on 23 December 1998 even before a special session of parliament could decide about the dissolution. Again it was Girija Prasad Koirala who headed a new coalition government of his NC with the CPN-UML and the NSP.

Both, NC and CPN-UML, were interested in early elections. But many critics saw an all party government as precondition for the holding of free and fair elections. In the past, government parties had used the administrative machinery for their own intentions, but with changing success. So, in 1992 the NC could win the local elections with an overwhelming majority. The CPN-UML had the same success in the local elections of 1997 when it was part of the coalition government of Lokendra Bahadur Chand (RPP). The NC, on the other hand, in 1994 could not benefit from the fact that Koirala’s government remained in office until the elections. So, I think, the respective election results have not so much been affected by manipulations caused by the governing parties but more by the growing political consciousness of the Nepali electorate. It seems, they have understood the potentialities and rules of the new democratic system better than most of the politicians have done.

Surprisingly, Prime Minister Koirala accepted the offer of the CPN-UML to form an all party government. One of the reasons may have been that he again was afraid of the formation of working majorities outside the NC camp. But right from the beginning, there were differences between NC und CPN-UML about which parties should be participating in the all party government. While Koirala did not want to exclude any party, the CPN-UML strongly rejected the inclusion of the CPN-ML, which it did not regard as a parliamentary party since its seats in parliament were not provided by elections but by the split of the UML. Another consequence of this argumentation was the exclusion of the RPP (Chand), which also had split off from the mother party.

The dissension was finally solved when neither the CPN-ML nor both the RPPs wanted to participate. For all these parties, the elections came too early, and so they demanded that they should not be hold before November 1999. These parties had also to worry because of their negative results in recent by-elections for parliament as well as for the local constituencies where elections did not take place in 1997 because of Maoist activities. NC and, especially, CPN-UML had been the clear winners in these by-elections.

Both the RPPs found themselves in a similar position as in 1991, when RPP (Thapa) and RPP (Chand) competed each other in many constituencies. With more than 12% of the votes these parties had won only 4 seats. The NC had only got about three times the number of votes, which was enough to win more than 27 times the number of seats compared to the RPPs in 1991.

The date of the 1999 parliamentary elections was finally set for 3 May. The main reason was that the Election Commission headed by Bishnu Pratap Shah needed some more time for the preparation of the elections. Shah criticized the government which wanted to categorize the constituencies into normal, sensitive and highly sensitive. He reminded that the conduction of the election was the task of the Election Commission only. But security had highest priority, and so the Election Commission decided to hold the election in two phases on 3 respectively 17 May.

NC and CPN-UML started their election campaigns immediately after the formation of the new coalition government. There were many open questions at that time. The government still had to face a vote of confidence in parliament. The length of the parliamentary session was undecided. Many politicians, like Ram Chandra Poudyal, the speaker of the house of representatives, demanded a full session since many bills had to be discussed. On 14 January 1999, the government got through the vote of confidence without any problems. After that, Koirala asked the King to dissolve parliament and call for new elections.

Among the leading political parties, the NC may be the only one that did not formally split, so far, but there are not less groupings within the NC than in other parties. At least two of them have played a major role in Nepal’s democratic years, i.e. those around the grand old leaders Girija Prasad Koirala, who is called Girija Babu by his followers, and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai or Kishunji.

This crisis began in the moment of the party’s great victory in the 1991 parliamentary elections, when interim prime minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai lost his constituency in Kathmandu to the UML general secretary Madan Kumar Bhandari. This meant that Bhattarai lost his second parliamentary elections after 1959 while his party rival Girija Prasad Koirala won both his constituencies. As a consequence, his nomination as Prime Minister had been undisputed since the party’s third old leader, Ganesh Man Singh had not participated in the elections because of health problems.

But soon, party infighting started again, since Bhattarai and Singh argumented that their respective followers were not participated enough in government and administration. Here we meet a basic problem of Nepali politics, nepotism as a matter-of-factness. It is taken for granted that relatives, friends and party followers have to be showered with offices and functions as soon as one of them has been elected into high political office. This has reduced national and international trust in Nepal’s administration in face of the ever changing governments in the 1990s – eight governments between May 1991 and May 1999, seven alone after November 1994 – paralyzing the development of the country.

The downfall of the Koirala government in 1994 had been a consequence of party infighting in the same way as the fall of Sher Bahadur Deuba in early 1997 or Krishna Prasad Bhattarai’s defeat in the 1994 by-elections. It seemed that, in face of these former quarrels, the NC leaders wanted to work things out with each other in 1999. Koirala, at least, without consulting his party announced Bhattarai as the leading candidate of the NC and coming Prime Minister shortly after the announcement of new elections. But this did not mean an end to the tensions inside the party. Especially the younger generation of party leaders was disappointed, because they had hoped for a new beginning with fresh blood at the top of the party. Criticized from within the NC was not only the nomination of Bhattarai but also Koirala’s politics of early elections, the coalition with the CPN-UML or the dissolution of parliament shortly after the vote of confidence.

Compared to the NC, the situation within the CPN-UML looked almost calm. Early elections were generally welcomed, and there was no opposition against nominating Man Mohan Adhikari as leading candidate of his party for the third time. The latter was known as Mr Clean of Nepali politics who was even respected by his political rivals. The calculated optimism of the CPN-UML was based on the party’s good results in by-elections and local elections. But observers doubted that the party would win the claimed absolute majority of seats. The main element of uncertainty was the CPN-ML. The split of the party initiated by Bam Dev Gautam and Chandra Prakash Mainali in early 1998 had reduced the leftist chances for victory considerably. The sense of this split was hardly understandable by outsiders. Both Gautam and Mainali claimed that, contrary to the CPN-UML, their new party had not betrayed communist ideology, but the numerous small orthodox communist parties saw little difference between CPN-UML and CPN-ML. Gautam was especially not pardoned for his harsh treatment of alleged Maoist activists when he was a coalition partner of the Chand government. The CPN-ML showed the same kind of optimism as NC and CPM-UML, but contrary to the latter, the CPN-ML fared badly in by- and local elections.

It was, indeed, difficult to give a prediction who would win the elections. After eight years of multiparty system it seemed unthinkable, that the old heads, who had been responsible for corruption, nepotism and abuse of power, really wanted to bring about changes if they again got the popular votes. Democracy has to begin in mind, but many politicians are lacking understanding and will. On the surface, this can be seen from the undemocratic party structures that hinder greater participation of the general masses. For example, not local party cadres decide about the candidates in the constituencies but the old party leaders at the centre. They are used to nominate their respective favourites as party candidates in the 205 constituencies. And this system is not to be changed if their personal claim to power and their access to national property and foreign aid shall be safeguarded.

Should the Maoist way of violence really be the last resort? This must be doubted. Maoist revolutions in other countries have proved that they may lead to economic improvements for the poor masses, but at the same time personal freedom will be lost. So, how should the people vote? Or should they boycott elections, at all.

4.2 Parties and programs

Two issues concerning outer respectively inner security played a leading role during the election campaign: India and the Maoist war. Nepal’s relations with India always have highest priority for the country’s politicians, especially for the leftists. The use and sell-out of Nepal’s natural resources, the revision of the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Nepal and India, the occupation of Nepali territory at Kalapani by India, the influx of Indian labour force and the participation of India in the solution of the Bhutanese refugee problem have been some of the most discussed India topics during the 1999 election campaign.

The dispute over the sell-out of natural resources already started during the first Koirala government (1991-94), when Girija Prasad Koirala tried to conclude an agreement with India about the Tanakpur project without the consent of parliament by a two-thirds majority. During the UML minority government and especially during the Deuba government (1995-97), the Tanakpur project was combined with other projects along the Mahakali river. In September 1996, the CPN-UML supported the ratification of this Mahakali Treaty. But there had been heavy disputes within the party’s central committee. Bam Dev Gautam had been one of the most critical opponents, and this was later at least ideologically mentioned as one of the main reasons for the split of the UML initiated by him.

The Treaty of Peace and Friendship had been concluded on 31 July 1950 between the then Rana government and India’s Nehru government. At that time, the Ranas were already facing strong opposition from democratic forces like the Nepali Congress and the Nepal Communist Party, most of all from Indian soil. So, the Ranas accepted conditions contrary to modern Nepal’s interests. The right of the citizens of both states to live and work in the other country made the control of the border impossible. It has allowed the influx of greater numbers of Indian citizens into the Nepali Tarai as well as the Kathmandu valley. Another negative touch of the Treaty is the incorporation of Nepal into the Indian security sphere.

Kalapani is situated at the northwesternmost corner of Nepal. In recent time it was found out that India had erected a military camp there already in the 1960s. India claims that the territory does not belong to Nepal but to India and rejects the recognition of maps presented by Nepal. Again, it have especially been the left parties and left student organizations that have vehemently protested against this situation.

The Bhutanese refugee problem started in 1990 during the interim government of Krishna Prasad Bhattarai. In the aftermath of democratic changes in Nepal there had been a call for democratization in neighbouring Bhutan as well. The propagators there were people of Nepali origin living in southern Bhutan. The autocratic system in Bhutan, having several structural parallels to Nepal’s former Panchayat system, saw itself in danger and started politics of ethnic cleansing, based on drastic legal changes that had been introduced in Bhutan since the mid 1980s. Independent of the question if those more than 100.000 people that were expelled from Bhutan, were Nepali or Bhutanese citizens, they would have had the right to stay in India because of corresponding Indian treaties with Nepal and Bhutan. But Bhutan sent them further to Nepal saying the problem was a bilateral one between Bhutan and Nepal only. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai said this should be solved by an elected government and let the refugees in. Since then, sporadic negotiations have taken place between Nepal and Bhutan, but without any outcome. The conflict can only be solved with Indian participation, but this is rejected by the Indian government.

After India, the so-called people’s war (jana yuddha) initiated by the Maoists received greatest attention during the election campaign. In 1995, the CPN (Maoist) submitted a long list of demands to the then Deuba government. These demands were a mixture of revolutionary theses with social and economic reforms. When the government showed no reaction, the Maoists started their war in February 1996 in four of the most backward districts of western Nepal,7 the principal targets being NC workers. Today, about half of the 75 districts are affected. There are records of up to 1000 deaths caused by this war; by far the greatest number of people were killed by security forces.

The Maoists had already successfully boycotted the local election of 1997 in many districts, and there were fears that this would happen again during the 1999 parliamentary elections. The success of the Maoists is not only based on intimidation but also on real support by the local population in areas neglected by the government. It is especially true for ethnic areas, and this means in western Nepal the traditional home area of the Magars. The leading figures of the CPN (Maoist) may belong to high Hindu castes,8 but most of its local workers and fighters are Magars as is proved by the high number of Magars killed by security forces. Intellectual circles in Kathmandu seem to be less concerned about the Maoist activities than about the reaction of the security forces. There have been numerous reports of extra-judicial killings or killing of innocent people by the police.

An opinion poll conducted by HIMAL-MARG, a private media organization from Lalitpur, invoked mixed reactions. Pro-UML papers published main stories highlighting certain parts of the findings. Pro-ML papers even labelled the survey to have been backed by foreign intelligence forces and comments from pro-NC papers were also critical. Independent critics also saw some flaws in the survey. It revealed that major concern of Nepalese voters were rising prices and unemployment. Of 7841 people surveyed, nearly 28% termed rising prices as their main problem, whereas more than 18% saw unemployment as the main problem. Nearly 29% of the respondents were worried about lack of development works in their vicinity. Only 7% termed corruption as the country's main problem whereas little more than 2% of the people interviewed saw issues like Bhutanese refugees, Maoist insurgency and pollution as major problems. When asked from whom they saw threat to the democratic system, nearly 80% mentioned the activities of leaders of the political parties. More than 10% saw such a threat from the Maoists whereas less than 3% saw any threat from unidentified foreign forces and pro-palace forces.9 The published results of the Himal-Marg opinion poll at least give way to doubts about the representativeness of the respondents, e.g. concerning area, gender and ethnicity.

4.3 Running the elections

For the first time, elections were held on two days. The Election Commission (EC) had decided to hold the elections in 93 of the 205 constituencies on 3 May and in 112 constituencies on 17 May 1999. The elections in the constituencies Kathmandu 1 and 3, Palpa 3 and Siraha 5 had to be postponed till June because of the death of Man Mohan Adhikari and two other candidates. The EC decision for two election dates got mixed reviews from parties and politicians. Many saw it as a chance for the governing NC and CPN-UML to manipulate the elections.

After all, one can say that the decision of the EC has proved a success. At least the numerous international observers spoke of peaceful and fair elections. There would have been registered less incidents compared to 1994. This view was not always shared by national observation groups. The latter argumented that international observers rarely have enough insights to look behind the events. Representatives of the oppositional parties spoke of extensive rigging and manipulation already after the first ballot. The dealing of the figure of election participation was cited as a proof right from the beginning. Initially, there had been talk of a participation of less than 60%. Finally this figure has been raised to 65,79%, about the same as in 1994. This caused the opposition to claim that the NC had handed in votes later, because the party had been afraid of loosing the elections after the first results came in.

About 13.5 Million person were entitled to vote. Applying for their votes were 1605 candidates from 39 parties and 633 independents. The greatest contingent came from the NC (205), followed by CPN-ML (197), RPP (195), CPN-UML (195) and RPP (Chand) (184). No party had essentially more female candidates than the 5% prescribed by the constitution, even though many parties had announced to participate a greater number of women as the elections approached. So this, too, was not different from previous elections.

Opinion polls spoke of a closely packed race between NC and CPN-UML. Incalculabilities resulted from the uncertainty of the real strength of CPN-ML and RPP (Chand). Another imponderable factor were the consequences of the death of the UML leader Man Mohan Adhikari shortly before the elections. Polls had proved that Adhikari had been the favourite of the Nepali electorate for the post of Prime Minister. The already mentioned opinion poll of Himal-Marg, for example, brought the following results: 32.2% of the respondents said that they would vote for NC, 31.9% said they would vote for CPN-UML, 7% said they would vote for RPP and only 3.9% said they were going to vote for the splinter CPN-ML. Nearly 15% of the respondents were undecided. Similarly, when asked whom they wanted to see as the country's next Prime Minister, 31% of the respondents preferred UML President Man Mohan Adhikari, 13.9% preferred NC leader Krishna Prasad Bhattarai. 14.3% would have preferred Girija Prasad Koirala as Prime Minister and 5.6% preferred RPP president Surya Bahadur Thapa, while only less than 3% of the respondents wanted to see Sher Bahadur Deuba, Bamdev Gautam and Lokendra Bahadur Chand as the next Prime Minister, less than 2% preferred Madhav Kumar Nepal, Ram Chandra Poudel and Shailaja Acharya.10

About one year earlier, public opinion polls still had predicted a clear victory of the CPN_UML in the case of new elections. But when Bam Dev Gautam and Chandra Prakash Mainali split the party in March 1998, almost half of the UML MPs joined the new CPN-ML, among them many prominent leaders like Sahana Pradhan, Radha Krishna Mainali and Padma Ratna Tuladhar. Both UML and ML showed calculated optimism to win the elections with absolute majority.

Another element of uncertainty was the RPP, which had split like the CPN-UML in early 1998. Fake unity had been established after the 1991 elections, when the party leaders Surya Bahadur Thapa and Lokendra Bahadur Chand recognised that unity of the rightist forces was a precondition to greater political influence and power participation. When Chand split the party again in 1998, about half of the RPP MPs joined him to form the RPP (Chand).

4.4 Analysis of results

The final results of the 1999 elections brought all previous speculations to an end. They did not produce another hung parliament, as many had feared, but an absolute majority to the NC with 111 MPs out of a total of 205. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai could win parliamentary elections for the first time. This meant that he was to be the new Prime Minister.

Another first fact of the results was that the CPN-UML became a strong opposition party with 71 MPs. One had to ask if Nepal was on her way to a two-party system. The RPP of Surya Bahadur Thapa faced a strong set-back winning only 11 seats.

Unmistakable was the popular vote against both the great splinter groups CPN-ML and RPP (Chand). In spite of their huge number of candidates, both parties were strongly neglected by the voters compared to their respective mother parties. Both did not win a single seat. It appeared as some kind of punishment for the splitting of their parties. This was especially true for the CPN-ML, where prominent candidates like Sahana Pradhan, Padma Ratna Tuladhar, Chandra Prakash Mainali, Bam Dev Gautam and Radha Krishna Mainali lost their traditional strongholds far behind other candidates.

The results of the numerous small parties were insignificant. Independent candidates also did not play a role this time. It’s true, the NSP, an ethnic party from the Tarai could improve from 3 to 5 MPs, but this must be seen as a consequence of the splits of CPN-UML and RPP. The Nepal Majdur Kisan Party (NMKP), which had won 4 seats in 1994, could only save the mandate of its leader Narayan Man Bijukche from Bhaktapur.

The leftist Samyukta Jana Morcha Nepal (SJMN, United People’s Front Nepal) has returned to parliament. Its leader, Lila Mani Pokharel, could win his constituency where he faced rivalry neither from the CPN-UML nor from the CPN-ML. In 1991, the SJMN had been the third force in parliament with 9 MPs. The party could not win a single seat in 1994 after the Maoists around Babu Ram Bhattarai split the front. New in parliament is the Rastriya Jana Morcha Nepal (RJMN, National People’s Front Nepal), a Maoist party that could win 5 seats in western Nepal, after an agreement with the CPN-UML in the corresponding districts. In 1994 two of its candidates had already been elected as Independents. The comparatively good results of this party may be taken as a hint for the possible strength of the Maoists in case they renounce terrorism and take part in the democratic system.

There has been great a number of new faces in parliament, since all former MPs of CPN-ML and RPP (Chand) have not been re-elected. In addition, there are also many newcomers from the other parties. There was a tendency not to nominate several former MPs known for corrupt practices.

The overwhelming victory of the NC is simply the expression of the clear political will of the voters, if one believes in the statements of NC leaders or some press comments. But the careful analysis of the results provides another picture. According to the number of mandates, the CPN-UML for the first time became the strongest party in the House of Representatives in 1994. This depended upon the Nepali plurality system with single-member constituencies. According to the number of votes, the NC was the strongest party 1994 as it had already been in 1991. And this is even true today, if you compare it to the votes of the CPN-UML only. But a comparison to 1994 is only possible if you add the votes of the CPN-ML. Then it becomes clear that the UML, in case it had not split, for the first time would have won clearly more votes than the NC.

And if you even go further and compare the figures of each and every constituency, then it becomes clear that the split of the CPN-UML has influenced the outcome of the 1999 elections in a most decisive manor. In not less than 42 constituencies, the NC could only win because the candidates of CPN-UML and CPN-ML rivalled each other. Without splitting, the CPN-UML would have won further 3 seats from the RPP respectively NSP. In other words: If Bam Dev Gautam and his followers had not split the party in 1998, the CPN-UML would have been the clear winner of the elections according to votes as well as mandates.

The split of the RPP has been less important. Both parties, i.e. RPP and RPP (Chand) together, have lost a greater number of votes compared to 1994. The RPP (Chand) has almost been extinguished by the popular vote. Apart from a few constituencies in Far Western Nepal, the party received only a few votes. In case CPN-UML and RPP had not split, the number of RPP MPs would have risen from 11 to 14.

5. Political consequences

Thanks to the split of the CPN-UML and the clever manoeuvring of NC president Girija Prasad Koirala in the pre-election phase, Nepal at last has a clear distribution of power after more than four years of political vacuum. In face of what Nepal has experienced as "politics" after the dismissal of the Adhikari government, the election results gave new hope that the country would finally be able to conclude the task of democratization. This hope was further nourished by the fact, that a lot of fresh blood had entered parliament. These new parliamentarians would now have to prove that they are less corrupt and selfish than their predecessors.

The parliaments of 1991 and 1994 could not fulfil most of the hopes placed in them. Over the years, the morals of the politicians have reached an all-time low. In the early 1990s there had been a lot of doubts in the people’s capability of democracy. There were many who rejected western democracy as unsuited for Nepal. During the last years of coalition chaos, there were even voices who wanted the King to intervene.

I don’t think that such a step back to autocratic times can be a solution to the problems of the country. In three parliamentary and two local elections, the people have proved that they understand the rules of democracy. If someone has failed, it is not the people but a number of corrupt and selfish politicians who have missed their chance repeatedly during the past years.

Democracy, most of all, means participation and equality of all sections of society. After 1990, little has changed in the socio-political sphere. The constitution has laid the key to such changes into the hands of the political parties. They are asked to establish and implement democracy in the country. Nepal’s political parties are still dominated by those elite sections of society that have ruled the country for centuries. To the outside, they may behave in a modern western way, but in their minds, they are deeply rooted in hierarchical thinking and traditions, whose characteristic feature is not equality und participation of all people.

One typical example is the position and participation of women. Three parliamentary elections have taken place after 1990. But none of the parties finally made up its mind to nominate more than the 5% female candidates prescribed by the constitution. The percentage of female MPs is even lower; only 12 women have been elected in 1999, 5 more than 1994, no voice of representative participation of women.11 So, it hardly wonders that this male body of mainly traditionally oriented MPs blocks a bill concerning the equal treatment of men and women for years. There are many male MPs who even openly reject the legal, social and economic equality of women.

The participation of ethnic groups, Dalits and Tarai population must be seen in the same context. Both leading parties, NC and CPN-UML, are overwhelmingly dominated by Bahuns, i.e. representatives of that section of society, that once established hierarchical thinking and behaviour in Nepal. About 40% of the MPs elected in 1999 are Bahuns (to remember, their share in the total population is 12.6% according to the 1991 census). The rest is dominated by Chetris or some elitist Newar castes. The ethnic groups are clearly underrepresented compared to their over 40% share in the total population. There are no Dalits at all in parliament. They had even not been nominated as candidates by the party leaders, even though there are living almost as many Dalits as Bahuns in Nepal.

All these inequalities have to be abolished if Nepal wants to implement democracy and civil society. The well-known and qualified magazine Spotlight wrote in its edition of 21 May 1999, the party politicians had proved their ability; politicians from high Hindu castes had even won in constituencies with Muslim or ethnic majorities. Apart from the fact that there are no Muslim majorities in Nepal, this statement is reduced to absurdity by the fact that the great parties often nominated Bahuns or Chetris in the ethnic areas. This will probably not change, as long as the party base in the constituency has not the right to choose its own candidate. It would also be a special task of the Nepali media to provide the necessary awareness. So far, they are not critical enough in socio-political questions.

So, there can only be hope that the newly elected representatives of the political parties will be more open to social and economic reforms. The clear distribution of power should make such changes easier. There will not be many hindrances, if the ruling NC and the oppositional CPN-UML more or less stand to their election manifestos. The problem is, that in the past the parties and their politicians forgot all their ideology and manifestos as soon as they were in power.

  1. The text had been formulated by representatives of the organizing political parties of the movement, and everybody had been invited to present his proposals to the constitution commission.

  2. The statistical figures of the Nepali government mentioning almost 90 % Hindus are misleading. The official figure given in the census went down from 89,5 % (1981) to 86,2 % (1991). (His Majesty's Government 1993:154).

  3. It is indeed regrettable that this figure is not higher. So far, discussions to raise the figure have not led to any changes in the regulations. In addition, the Nepali constitution does not set any minimum female share for candidates to local bodies like Village Development Committees (VDC) and Municipalities. But this must not necessarily be negative since the local election law provides for the participation of 30 % women. This has already given women a better voice on the local level, even though one still cannot speak of equality.

  4. Gorkhapatra 6 August 1994

  5. The decisions of the Election Commission have been upheld by the Supreme Court several times.

  6. The local elections of 1997 were won by the CPN-UML with about 52 %. The RPP slightly improved to 10 %.

  7. Rukum, Rolpa, Jajarkot and Salyan

  8. See list of the party’s central committee as published in The People’s Review, 20 January 2000.

  9. Spotlight, 23 April 1999

  10. Spotlight, 23 April 1999

  11. In the 60-seat National Assembly the number of female MPs rose from 5 to 9 in 1999, which is also still less than 10 %.


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Postscript: This original text has been edited by INSEC

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