April 30, 2015
Since a decade-long civil war against a Maoist insurgency
ended in 2006, democratic institutions in Nepal have
developed more slowly than many observers had hoped. A
devastating April 2015 earthquake has multiplied the
challenges the country faces. Nepal has for several years
struggled to find political consensus to draft a new
constitution. The central issue blocking agreement appears
to be whether a new federal structure should be based on
ethnic identity, as favored by the opposition, or on
economic and geographic factors, as favored by the ruling
coalition. Some observers express concern that an identitybased federalist state could weaken national integrity. U.S.
aid to Nepal has sought to help Nepal cement gains in
peace, security and democracy, and to become more
prosperous. U.S. and other international assistance now is
shifting to focus on earthquake recovery.
April 2015 Earthquake
A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the central and western
regions of Nepal on April 25, 2015. As of April 28, 2015,
the Government of Nepal estimates that more than 4,300
people have been killed and over 8,000 injured. (More than
two dozen people were also reported killed in neighboring
India, China and Bangladesh.) An estimated 2 million
people in 11 districts have been severely affected. Priority
needs include food, water, shelter, and medication. The
Government of Nepal is leading the response efforts and
has requested international assistance. The U.N.
humanitarian system is responding. The United States
government has established a Disaster Assistance Response
Team (DART), which includes urban search-and-rescue
personnel, and announced $10 million in humanitarian
assistance. Nepal declined assistance from Taiwan. Some
critics suggested it did so out of deference to its powerful
Nepal has undergone a radical political transformation since
2006, when a ten-year long armed struggle by Maoist
insurgents, which claimed at least 13,000 lives, officially
came to an end. The country’s king stepped down in 2006,
and two years later Nepal declared itself a republic, electing
a unicameral Constituent Assembly (CA) to write a new
constitution. Observers have noted that since the transition
from monarchy to republic, identity politics has become
more evident. The failure of the first CA to craft a new
constitution led to its demise in May 2012 when the
Supreme Court of Nepal, which at the CA’s inception had
been given authority to extend the CA’s mandate, refused
further extensions arguing that a fresh mandate was needed.
Though the process of democratization beginning in 2006
has had setbacks and has been marred by some violence,
most observers agree that Nepal has conducted reasonably
peaceful elections, brought former Maoist insurgents into
the political system, and in a broad sense, taken several
large steps towards building a functioning democracy. That
said, the continued impasse on the drafting of the new
constitution has the potential to lead to increased political
tensions and street protests.
Constitutional Reform Process
In November 2013, Nepal held elections for a second CA.
Efforts by the second CA to agree on a new constitution by
consensus appear to have failed, due to political infighting.
Before the earthquake, some observers speculated that the
government may seek to use its near two-thirds majority to
push a new constitution through. It is too early to tell how
the earthquake will affect constitutional reform.
NEPAL IN BRIEF
Population: 31 million 2014 est.
Area: 147,181 sq. km.; about the size and shape of
Geography: Relatively flat river plain of the Terai in the
south, central hill/mountain region and very mountainous
Himalaya region of the north.
Capital: Kathmandu; 1.1 million people 2014 est.
Ethnic/Caste Groups: 125 groups including: Brahman,
Chetri, Newar, Gurung, Magar, Tamang, Rai, Limbu, Sherpa,
Tharu, et al.
Language: Nepali (official); about 12 others
Religion: Hindu 81.3%; Buddhist 9%; Muslim 4.2% 2011 est.
Life Expectancy at Birth: 67.2 2014 est.
Literacy: Total 57.4%; female 46.7%; male 71.1% 2011 est.
Per Capita income: $2,400 ppp 2014 est.
Gross Domestic Product growth: 5.5% 2014 est.
GDP by Sector: Agriculture 30.7%, industry 13.6%, services
55.7% 2014 est..
Labor by Sector: Agriculture 75%, industry 7%, services
18%. 2010 est.
Urbanization: 18.2% with 3.2% annual rate of increase 2014
Export partners: India 53.7%, U.S. 9.2%, China 4.9%,
Germany 4.2%, Bangladesh 4.2% 2013 est.
Population below the poverty line: 25.2% 2011 est.
Source: CIA, World Factbook; The Economist Intelligence Unit.
The CA has 601 seats, with 575 elected and 26 appointed
by the cabinet. The Nepali Congress (NC), with 196 of 575
elected seats, and the Communist Party of Nepal United
Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), with 175 seats, now lead the
government in coalition. The Communist Party of Nepal
Maoist (CPN-M), which was the largest party after the 2008
election, is now the third largest party in the CA. Since
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February 2014, Nepal’s Prime Minister has been Sushil
Koirala, the leader of the NC. With 371 of 575 elected seats
the NC and the CPN-UML together have close to the twothirds majority needed to endorse a new constitution.
Ethnic, communal, ideological and regional cleavages
continue to be sources of contention as the CA has
considered proposals for a new federal structure. Whether
the government’s response to the earthquake may give rise
to controversies that create additional cleavages remains
unclear. Initial media reports have included allegations of
official incompetence, misconduct, and corruption in the
delivery of earthquake relief.
Nepal has made some progress in efforts to consolidate its
new democracy since 2013 with both the integration of
former Maoist fighters into the armed forces and the
successful completion of the second Constituent Assembly
elections. Voter turnout for the 2013 CA election increased
from 56.5% of registered voters in 2008 to 77.6% of
registered voters in 2013. These elections also marked a
shift to the center-right of Nepali politics with the Nepali
Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal MarxistLeninist gaining relative to the Communist Party of NepalMaoist, which had previously led the bloody armed struggle
against the state. The CPN-M and other opposition parties
have pledged opposition to efforts by the ruling coalition to
vote on a new constitution. They demonstrated their
strength through a political protest rally attended by tens of
thousands in Kathmandu on February 28, 2015. On March
29, 2015, police clashed with cadres of the Maoist-led
coalition of opposition parties in several parts of the
country. It is unclear what the CPN-M reaction would be
should a constitution be passed without its support.
The Maoists and other opposition parties reportedly seek to
redraw the district map of Nepal based on ethnic identity in
order to address grievances of ethnic groups that feel they
have been underrepresented in the key institutions of the
state, particularly those living in the Terai region bordering
India. One concern with this approach is that it could
exacerbate divisions within Nepali society by accentuating
subnational ethnic, regional and linguistic identities over
identification with the overall state of Nepal.
One key regionally-based, socio-political cleavage in
Nepali society is between the Madhese people of the
lowland Terai region and “hill” people. The Madhese of the
Terai, which spans the southern border with India, have not
been pleased with the political status quo, which divides
their region. Caste also plays a complex role in this. Any
redistricting in a new constitution that does not take into
account Madhese interests may not be well received by
Madhese groups, some of which have engaged in violence
in the past.
mounted from time to time with concomitant troop
buildups. Nepal’s reliance on these two giant neighbors
leads it to seek amicable relations with both, though trade
and cultural ties with India have historically been closer. In
the view of some observers, ties with India may improve
with the transition from the Communist Party of Nepal–
Maoist (CPN-M) to the Nepali Congress (NC)–Communist
Party of Nepal United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML)-led
coalition government. Nepal and India also share Hindu
India and Nepal have a tradition of close cooperation in the
area of defense and foreign affairs. Nepal is also heavily
dependent on India as its primary source of imports and its
main market for exports, and for access to the sea through
the port of Calcutta. A significant percentage of all foreign
investment in Nepal also comes from India. While the
Himalayan mountain range along Nepal’s northern border
limits access to China, the 500-mile southern plains border
with India is relatively open. India has concerns with its
own Maoist insurgency. Kathmandu has at times sought to
counterbalance what it considers undue pressure from India.
Under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has
moved to improve ties with Nepal. Modi’s state visit to
Nepal in August 2014 was the first by an Indian prime
minister in 17 years. India extended $1 billion in
concessionary loans to Nepal to develop hydropower and
infrastructure. China has made significant inroads in
developing ties in South Asia, including Nepal. Some,
particularly in strategic circles in New Delhi, increasingly
view Chinese activity with geopolitical concern.
For many years Nepal has been a transit country for
Tibetans seeking to flee Chinese repression in Tibet. Many
of those entering Nepal from Tibet move on to settle in
India, home to Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai
Lama. Nepal closely monitors Tibetan refugees, restricts
their freedom of assembly and expression, and makes it
difficult for them to obtain documents necessary for access
to public services. Since 2008, Nepal has also stepped up
cooperation with China to stem the flow of new refugees
Nepal is one of the poorest and least developed countries of
the world, with approximately one in four living in poverty.
United States assistance to Nepal “is focused on achieving a
more democratic, prosperous and resilient country.” All
U.S. assistance efforts seek to “promote resilience and
reduce Nepal’s susceptibility to shocks and stresses.”
Bruce Vaughn, email@example.com, 7-3144
Nepal is a landlocked geopolitical buffer state, like Bhutan,
that is caught between two Asian giants. India and China
fought a border war in 1962 in the Himalayan mountains
near Nepal, which led to ongoing territorial disputes
between them. Tensions along the India-China border have
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