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.
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).