Nepal's Road to Democracy: A Reflection

Nepal recently celebrated its 74th Democracy Day. The country has come a long way in terms of consolidating democracy and establishing inclusive rule of law. However, the gap between implementation and reality in transforming people’s lives remain still a challenge.

The winding path from Monarchy to Republic

Nepal's trajectory towards democracy unfolds as a narrative of triumphs and setbacks. The beginning of modern Nepal emerged with consolidation under the Shah dynasty during the mid-18th century. Yet, a complex power dynamic remained central as the Rana dynasty ascended, holding power through hereditary prime ministers from 1846 to 1951, relegating the monarchy to a mere symbolic entity. The autocratic Rana regime limited political engagement and civic liberties for the citizens.

The first uprising against the Rana autocracy came in the 1940s, inspired to a certain extent by India’s’ independence movements and fueled by growing domestic discontent. The 1950-51 revolution, marked annually as the National Democracy Day on Falgun 7 (Gregorian calendar: 18th Feb 1951), overthrew the Ranas and established Nepal's first democratically elected government. But it was short-lived, as King Mahendra dismissed the parliament in 1960 and established the party-less Panchayat System that lasted for three decades. Though the Panchayat regime held elections, political parties were banned, and authoritarian control persisted.

The 1990 People's Movement (Jan Andolan I) finally re-established multiparty democracy in Nepal. However, subsequent years were marked by political instability, with frequent changes in government, infighting between political parties, and the inadequacy of the new democratic constitution being representative of all sections in a multi-cultural society. In addition to these discrepancies in the governance system, the Maoist insurgency erupted in 1996 from the grievances related to poverty, inequality and the clash of ideas between those advocating for political change and those who preferred the status quo.

The People’s Movement II (Jan Andolan II) in 2006 marked another milestone in Nepal’s democracy, leading to the abolition of the Monarchy in 2008 and the establishment of Nepal as a Federal Democratic Republic. The new constitution promulgated in 2015 remains contested by groups fearing continued marginalization and institutional state oppression. The journey of Nepal towards democracy, therefore, over the past seven decades has been nonlinear and remnants of authoritarianism have persisted throughout, marked by conflict and political instability.


Nepal’s Democracy at the crossroads

Nepal's transition to democracy has been impacted by several challenges undermining the process of democratic deepening. The initial euphoria of the 1950s has given way to frustrations and disillusionments for many Nepalis today. Political instability remains a persistent problem, with frequent changes in the government, power struggle between parties, dissolutions of parliament and coalitions formed without any proper alignment in their principles. Ideals like power alternation, tolerance and respect for the opposition remain weak. State mechanisms like the judiciary and other public institutions remain vulnerable to political interference and pressures, thereby raising questions on the rule of law. 

Throughout the multiple democratic transitions in Nepal the desired socio-political transformation has not been achieved. Poverty still affects nearly a fifth of Nepal's population despite some decline. On paper and in policies, economic prosperity and human development have been promised and progressive legal regulations set accordingly. However, reforms in education, healthcare and infrastructure have been slow to materialize. While there are assured provisions for equal rights and representations in laws and provisions, women and marginalized groups continue facing barriers in real life lived experiences. Moreover, the frustrations of Nepali youths is intensifying due to shrinking economic opportunities and the absence of a merit-based system.

The increasing legitimacy gap of politicians and the challenges to stability, accountability and inclusion, remain the key roadblock to a sustainable democratic transformation.


Nepal defining its democratic path against all odds

Nepal has come a long way. Nevertheless, sustaining its democratic gains will require continued struggle by both government and citizens alike. Strengthening democratic institutions, promoting transparency, and fostering dialogue between different political forces are essential for rebuilding public trust and confidence in the democratic process. This will only happen when political parties are democratic enough to encourage open and critical debates within and across parties to promote responsive policies.

With one of the world’s youngest populations, Nepal’s democracy must create space for its youth in decision-making positions. Intergenerational political mentorship is very rare, thereby creating a void in political transition. In order to bridge the generational divide, political parties should strengthen their internal democracy by reforming the candidate nomination process, encouraging women, marginalized groups and young political aspirants.

At the same time, tackling corruption, the public financing of parties, encouraging merit-based appointments in civil and political affairs, enhancing horizontal candidacy nomination in the electoral process, guaranteeing meaningful citizen participation, enhancing citizen oversight and strengthening public scrutiny will create a resilient democratic foundation. With a robust federal structure already institutionalized, decentralization should be implemented efficiently, and all three tiers of government should complement rather than compete with one another.

As Nepal continues to define its democratic path, it must reconcile external models with its own cultural norms and traditions to build an inclusive democracy rooted in the diverse identities and perspectives of its people. The political parties and the governance system must work towards a Nepali model of inclusive development that puts humans at its core. Nepali people's power has prevailed against authoritarianism, proving democracy's roots run deep. With wisdom and perseverance, citizens can redeem democracy's promise of inclusion, stability and development. Against this background, FES Nepal, as a social democratic organization, has been supporting progressive actors in Nepal towards their journey of democratic consolidation.

Deepika Dhakal works at the FES Nepal Office. Her fields of interest include public diplomacy and policy analysis in Nepal and beyond.

FES Asia

Bringing together the work of our offices in the region, we provide you with the latest news on current debates, insightful research and innovative visual outputs on the future of work, geopolitics, gender justice, and social-ecological transformation.