GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
GOVERNMENT Overview: Nepal’s constitution was promulgated on November 9, 1990, and is technically Nepal’s fundamental law. The constitution guarantees certain rights to all citizens, protects individual liberties, and establishes Nepal as a “multiethnic, multilingual, democratic, independent, indivisible, sovereign, Hindu and Constitutional Monarchical Kingdom” with a parliamentary government and an independent judiciary. However King Gyanendra (r. 2001– ) dissolved both houses of parliament in May 2002 as well as three subsequent interim governments composed of a prime minister and a Council of Ministers. The last interim government was suspended on February 1, 2005, and King Gyanendra has since ruled with full executive powers assisted by an appointed 10-person crisis cabinet. A state of emergency established by the king on February 1, 2005, was lifted on April 29, 2005, but civil rights and liberties remain restricted.
Since the restoration of democracy in 1990, the most prominent actors in Nepalese politics have been the king, the political parties, and the Maoist rebels. The single most powerful political entity is the king, who is the head of state, supreme commander of the Royal Nepal Army, and the constitutionally declared symbol of both the nation and national unity. The Raj Parishad, or King’s Council, determines accession to the throne and the heir apparent, and the king appoints its members. The rule of kings has been culturally legitimized by the belief that kings are an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu and are upholders of dharma on earth, although it is debated how widely such beliefs are held. Royal power has been based on strong ties with the military and economic elites.
Legislative Branch: Nepal’s legislature consists of the king and a bicameral parliament. The king’s legislative powers are technically ceremonial, but the king approves or returns for reconsideration all bills approved by the two houses of parliament, except finance bills. The lower house of parliament, the House of Representatives (Pratindidhi Sabha), has authority over the Council of Ministers and is regarded as the more powerful of the two houses. The lower house has 205 members directly elected for five-year terms. The prime minister is the leader of the majority party and the country’s chief executive. The upper house, the National Council (Rashtriya Sabha), has 60 members, who are appointed or indirectly elected to six-year terms: the king appoints 10 members, the House of Representatives elects 35, and an electoral college elects 15, three from each developmental region. Bills may be introduced in either house except finance bills, which are introduced only by the lower house. All bills must be passed by both houses and then receive royal assent. If the upper house rejects a bill, the lower house may override. If the king returns a bill for reconsideration, a joint session of parliament may pass the bill, which then automatically receives royal assent within 30 days. The king may promulgate ordinances, but only when both houses of parliament are not in session, and such ordinances are not effective until approved by both houses. The king may dissolve the House of Representatives for a period of six months, after which new elections must be held, but the National Assembly is a permanent body. Nevertheless, King Gyanendra dissolved both houses in May 2002.
Judicial Branch: The 1990 constitution is the fundamental law of the land and establishes a three-tier court system consisting of 75 district courts, 16 appellate courts, and the Supreme Court. Village and municipal bodies may exercise quasi-judicial functions for minor offenses. All courts have original jurisdiction, but district courts have original jurisdiction over most judicial matters. The Supreme Court also has appellate jurisdiction and jurisdiction over all courts, except military courts, and Supreme Court orders, decisions, and interpretations are binding on all, including the king. The Supreme Court has a chief justice appointed by the king on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council and 14 judges appointed by the king on the recommendation of the Judicial Council, which also appoints appellate and district court judges. The House of Representatives can impeach Supreme Court justices. The judiciary is widely regarded as becoming more autonomous, but it suffers from large case backlogs, insufficient finances and personnel, political intervention, poor demarcation of jurisdiction between courts, and biases based on caste and economic status. Thus, many Nepalese do not view the official court system as a viable option for legal matters. A survey conducted in 2000 revealed that the majority of legal-type issues were handled not by government officials but by local actors, such as village chiefs.
Judicial and Legal System: Nepal’s legal system is composed of the 1990 constitution, the legal code, legislation, and Supreme Court precedents. The constitution guarantees equality of all citizens and provides fundamental rights and liberties. The legal code, or Muluki Ain, was introduced in 1854 and revised in 1963. It combines Hindu laws and sanctions, British and Indian codes, and traditional rules of behavior among the Newars in the Kathmandu Valley. Issues not covered by this code, however, are dealt with according to customs of local communities. Nepal does not have separate criminal and civil courts. Judges decide all cases and have wide discretion in doing so. The constitution does not provide for trial by jury but does provide rights to counsel and public trial as well as protection from double indemnity and retroactive application of laws.
Administrative Divisions: Nepal’s largest administrative divisions are development regions, which are divided into zones. Zones are further divided into districts, which in turn are divided into nine to 17 ilakas that cover clusters of villages and municipalities. Municipalities and villages are divided into wards, the smallest administrative unit, with villages containing nine wards and municipalities nine to 35 wards depending on population. Nepal has a total of five development regions, 14 zones, 75 districts, 58 municipalities, 3,915 villages, and 36,032 wards. Municipalities and villages are legally distinguished by population. Municipalities must have a minimum population of 20,000, except in mountain and hill areas, where the minimum population is 10,000.
Provincial and Local Government: Government below the national level is complex, evolving, and a highly debated political topic. All administrative divisions have one or more governing bodies, and members are directly elected, indirectly elected, or appointed by the central government. The king appoints regional and zonal administrators, who are responsible for coordinating the functions of ministries and departments within their respective areas. Villages, municipalities, and districts each have two governing bodies that are composed of directly and indirectly elected members serving five-year terms, with some representatives serving simultaneously on two or more governing bodies. One governing body at each level meets once per month and is responsible for implementing central government policies but also has autonomous policy, revenues, and judicial authority. The other governing body at the same level meets once or twice per year to approve the corresponding body’s policies, budgets, and revenue methods. Wards have one governing body, a ward committee whose members also serve on municipal and village committees and councils.