This post steps outside the specialties of this blog a little bit. One of my academic sidelines is revolution, though I have not published in this area in a while. Recent events in Nepal have looked more like an incipient revolution* than party or electoral politics, with a king having assumed absolute rule a year ago (and having dissolved parliament in 2002) and a Maoist insurgency supposedly controlling much of the countryside.
Shortly before a big opposition demonstration was expected, the king announced he would reinstate parliament. At least for now, this has split the alliance between the parliamentary parties and the Maoists. Those who had been demonstrating are apparently hailing this decision as a victory, while the Maoists are (predictably) calling it a ploy. But I can’t help but feel that the Maoists’ position on this announcement by the king might be the one closer to reality. The parties that accepted a measure well short of what the alliance had been calling for–i.e. an end to the “autocratic monarchy” and elections for a constituent assembly to decide the role of the monarchy and how to deal with the Maoists–need to be careful here. If this is a first step to the constituent assembly, it could be a positive step. But I wonder if the assurances are really there, given this king’s track record.
Then there is the question of how representative these parties that just accepted this offer really are. One can see from a look at the results of the 1991, 1994, and 1999 elections that the party system is fragmented. Nepal uses FPTP, yet many small parties have one or a few seats each. In other words, many of these parties represent small regional constituencies. The largest party in 1999 was the Nepalese Congress Party. It won a manufactured majority of seats on only about 37% of the vote.
One can only infer so much from electoral statistics–though I have been known to infer a lot!–but this is not the look of a party system in which the parties are broadly representative. If all of them are on board with the king’s plan, then, more or less by definition, it implies broad acceptance by the people’s representatives. On the other hand, these party leaders have not been the people’s de-facto representatives for some time–parliament has been dissolved and in the meantime, its constitutional term would have expired–and they have not been tested in an election in an even longer time. In the mean time, “people power” has emerged. The parties have to tread carefully here, or they could find themselves losing ground to the Maoists if the latter’s assessment of the king’s offer as a ploy comes to be seen by masses of Nepalis as accurate.
* The link is to a post at The Head Heeb, in the comments to which, Jonathan and I have discussed the relevance of existing typologies of revolution to Nepal. Jonathan has posted an update.