Debating India
Home page > Public directory > Neighbouring countries > Nepal > Nepalis want democracy, not monarchy

Nepalis want democracy, not monarchy

Thursday 3 February 2005, by YADAV*Yogendra

The key to the future of Nepal after the dismissal of the Deuba Government and the imposition of Emergency lies in a question that everyone finds difficult to answer at this stage: how would the Nepali citizen respond to this act of the King? The state of censorship and the absence of any reliable information from within Nepal have made this question all the more difficult to answer. In the absence of reliable information we all tend to fall back on stereotypes and prejudices. All those who are concerned about these developments and the fate of democracy in our neighbourhood will wonder about some tough questions: do the ordinary Nepalis care for democracy? Are they not disgusted with the way democracy has worked in the country ever since 1990? Are they not fed up with the Maoist insurgency and would they not welcome any attempt to resolve the matter, no matter who does it? And finally, isn’t the Nepalis’ regard for the institution of monarchy still strong enough for them to accept the latest adventure by the current King?

It will be a long time before we can answer these questions with some confidence. But fortunately a recent survey of Nepali public opinion and attitudes on democracy gives us definite clues on most of these questions. This survey was carried out in August and September 2003 by a team of Nepali political scientists led by Professor Krishna Hachhethu of the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu. This was a part of a project "State of Democracy in South Asia" of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, in collaboration with International IDEA, an inter-governmental organisation headquartered in Stockholm. While the report based on the findings of this survey was released in October 2004 and was extensively discussed in the Nepali media, the world outside Nepal did not notice this.

Representative survey

This is a very representative survey, with the sample being drawn on a strict random basis from select polling stations spread throughout the country. The survey was carried out in 163 locations spread evenly across all the regions of Nepal. A total of 3,249 respondents were interviewed; the profile of the respondents (80 per cent rural, 54 per cent women) matches the population profile of Nepal. It should be noted that given the complex nature of issues raised in the survey, a significant number of citizens surveyed could not understand many of the key questions; in some cases this number was as high as 40 per cent. The percentages reported below are of those who understood the question and responded to it.

The survey shows that Nepali citizens retain their trust in democracy as the best form of government despite disappointment with the working of democracy and with the behaviour of politicians. As many as 62 per cent respondents say that "democracy is always preferable to any other form of government"; only 10 per cent say authoritarianism is acceptable, while 28 per cent are indifferent. It should be noted that these figures are not very different from responses to the same question in India. Not only do they like democracy, they think it can work in Nepal. An overwhelming majority of 79 per cent holds that democracy is suitable for Nepal, while only 21 per cent say it is not. This despite strong reservations about the record of democracy in the country. When asked about the way democracy has actually worked, 57 per cent said they were dissatisfied. Nearly three-fourths of the respondents (74 per cent) strongly agreed that the political leaders worked only for their own and party interests rather than in the national interest. But then this is true all over the world.

One test for support for democracy is whether people reject non-democratic alternatives. In this survey, the Nepali citizens do so. When asked to react to different ways of governing the country, 64 per cent strongly agree with the idea that leaders elected through fair elections should rule the country. When asked the same question about the rule of a King, only 25 per cent strongly agreed. The figure was even lower, only 11 per cent, for army rule.

The survey explored people’s responses to the monarchy in some detail.

Limited monarchy

There is no doubt some nostalgia and a sense of loyalty to the institution of the monarch. But when given a clear option, people do not want the King to be the executive head. When asked to choose from the three kinds of roles the King could play, 63 per cent expressed themselves in favour of a limited constitutional monarchy, while 22 per cent favour an executive monarch with `more powers and rights’ and 15 per cent are clearly for the republican option of doing away with the monarchy. It should be reported here that these figures exclude the 37 per cent of the persons interviewed who did not understand these distinctions or had no opinion. Even then the responses indicate a sea change in public opinion. Republicanism is (or perhaps was till two days ago) still a weak sentiment in Nepal, but there is a definite rejection of executive monarchy of the kind that King Gyanendra has set out to restore notwithstanding the lip-service to the restoration of democracy.

We do not know how people have responded to the events of February 1. But the survey tells us how people responded to a similar if milder act of the same King two years ago. In October 2002, King Gyanendra had dismissed an earlier popular government led again by Sher Bahadur Deuba. When asked to react to that, people strongly disapproved of the dismissal of popular government and taking over of executive powers by the King. When asked to assess the impact of the dismissal, 84 per cent respondents said the condition of the country had got bad or very bad after that.

The Constitution

There is no doubt that the ordinary Nepalis would like the current deadlock to be resolved, but they would like this to be through a roundtable discussion involving the Maoists and the political parties. A majority of 51 per cent of those who have an opinion are in favour of a new Constitution, while 40 per cent want the existing one amended. Only 9 per cent support the Constitution as it exists. Of those who favour a new Constitution, 76 per cent want it done through a fresh constituent assembly, while only 13 per cent are for the King to appoint a commission to make a new Constitution. It should be noted that these fine points about the constitution are understood by very few, but it does give a sense of the direction of public opinion.

If this survey is any guide to the political mind of Nepal today, the King may have undertaken a very risky gamble in trying to revive the executive monarchy. In the short term, he may have an upper hand, given the state of disunity and disrepute in which the mainstream political leaders find themselves today. But in the long run he is likely to encounter a public that has tasted democracy and is no longer willing to surrender its sovereignty. Unwittingly, the King may have paved the way for a Republic of Nepal.

(The writer is Senior Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.)

SPIP | template | | Site Map | Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0