227. Telegram From the Embassy in Nepal to the Department of State1

2528. Subject: Nepal’s National Referendum: Issues.

1. (Confidential–Entire text)

2. Begin summary: Apart from the referendum question itself, Nepal’s forthcoming national referendum contains a number of underlying issues. In essence, the Panchayat side has identified itself with nationalism and stability, while the multiparty side has put itself forward as the champion of democracy. This telegram analyzes these two positions. End summary.

3. After a year of preparation and campaigning, Nepal will hold its national referendum on May 2. Technically, the sole issue being put to the voters is simple: Should Nepal adopt a “multiparty system” or continue with a modified version of the partyless Panchayat system that has been in place for the last two decades.

4. The apparent simplicity of the referendum issue is, however, deceptive. The term “multiparty system” has not been defined, although its major proponents have made it clear that they regard it as meaning a Western-style parliamentary system. Likewise, there has been no official announcement of the specific reforms implied by the term, “modified Panchayat system”. It is generally thought, however, that such a system would be based on direct election of a Parliament through universal adult franchise, with a Prime Minister to be chosen by the Parliament and a Cabinet responsible to the Parliament.

5. If these widely-held assumptions are correct, then the sole difference between the two referendum options would be the existence or non-existence of legal political parties. This, however, is not the popular conception of the meaning of the referendum. To many people, it is seen simply as a vote for or against the 20-year record of the Panchayat system; to others, it is the King and the Panchayat system versus B.P. Koirala (leader of the Nepal Congress Party and the Prime Minister of Nepal’s only previous popularly chosen government).

6. In the course of the campaign, advocates of both sides have taken full account of these popular understandings of the meaning of the referendum in their campaigns, and have introduced a range of issues that go far beyond the mere choice of political structure. The [Page 564] results of the referendum will be taken as indicating popular attitudes on these issues.

7. Issues raised by the Panchayat side. The Panchas have based their campaign essentially on nationalism, stability and royalism. They have argued that in a country as historically and ethnically diverse as Nepal, a system of parties implies communalism and disunity and invites foreign interference. They label various parties (not completely inaccurately) as being agents of one foreign power or another, and warn that in the event of the introduction of a party system, Nepal could become a battleground over which the rivalry of these foreign powers would be fought out. They assert that the Panchayat system is uniquely suited to the traditions and problems of Nepal, and that only this system can assure the essential leadership role of the King. They argue that the instability that would be characteristic of a party system would distract energy from economic development and would jeopardize equal enjoyment of civil rights. They characterize themselves as the system of law and order, the guarantor of Nepalese values, culture and tradition. They attempt to demonstrate that during its 20 years in office, the Panchayat system has, in fact, moved Nepal decisively forward on the path of economic development.

8. Multiparty issues. The multiparty side in the referendum consists of groups (“banned parties”) somewhat more diverse in philosophy than the Panchayat side. It has not waged a unified campaign, and there have thus been differences in multiparty emphasis on various issues depending on who is doing the talking. Certain common threads, however, run through most multiparty statements. These tend to center about the alleged failures and sins of the Panchayat system. The Panchayat system is charged with corruption, repression of civil liberties, enrichment of the few while the great mass of the poor have become even more impoverished, failure to introduce democracy, destruction of the economy, and during the campaign itself, misuse of public funds to advance its cause in the referendum. It is argued that a partyless system is essentially incapable of functioning democratically, and thus cannot enlist the popular participation necessary to unleash the country’s energies for development. The multiparty side has tended to ignore foreign policy issues, although it has made ritual obeisance to non-alignment. It has defended itself against charges of vulnerability to foreign influence by contending that a democratically enhanced national consciousness would be the best guarantor of Nepalese sovereignty and independence.

9. What it boils down to is that the Panchas have rested their case on stability and an appeal to nationalism, while the multiparty has stressed democracy and social justice. The outcome of the referendum, [Page 565] if it is reasonably and fairly conducted, will thus provide an indication of the extent to which Nepal has emerged from its feudal past.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800215–0956. Confidential; Immediate. Sent for information to Calcutta, Colombo, Dacca, and New Delhi.