Democracy in Nepal Parties were unstable and dysfunctional
Long lasting peace cannot be consolidated if a political system lacks both competence and legitimacy.
The failure of authoritarian political systems spurred the surge of democratisation during the 1980s. The trend was a powerful reaction against totalitarian ideologies controlling economy, polity and society. While there is an undeniable growth in the number of democracies in the world, many are not so stable. Nepal is no exception. Some argue that Nepal faces same setbacks other Third World societies face as they strive to establish a successful democratic system. Despite the end of absolute monarchy in 1990, Nepal is far from meeting the standards of western democracy. At the conceptual level, Nepal’s return to democratic rule has brightened the scope of constitutional rule, competitive party politics, the assertiveness of judiciary, the establishment of an elected parliament with adequate power and legitimacy, and the increased freedom within civil society. But it has now evolved into a pendulum democracy because of the emergence of left-right extremism.
If leaders create a hostile atmosphere by wasting their energies in infighting, authoritarianism
lacks requisite civic virtue and hence cannot be a social agent of democracy. While the current
conflict between right authoritarian and left-libertarian dimension raises doubts on restoration of popular democracy anytime soon, monarchy in Nepal has always refused to accept people’s
supremacy. Unfortunately, the elected government has also alienated the people by their rule of corruption and nepotism. Conflict resolution would require new commitments to tolerance and self-restraint, but both far-right monarchists and far-left Maoists want to impose their will on the people at gunpoint. Although the conflict has no solution outside specific political settlements, Nepal’s protracted conflict cannot be contained by repression. There is no basis for assuming a quick military victory over the Maoists. The most effective way to overcome crisis is by configurational approach, exploration of new ideas, strategies and democratic arrangements.
The insurgency has two major implications. First, a humanitarian crisis has arrived much sooner than anticipated. Second, the continuation of insurgency may mean Nepal is fast approaching the failed state status that the global security initiatives would wish to avoid.
The Maoists emerged as a major factor after October 2002. But post October 2002 is another saga outside the framework of parliamentary democracy. The royal proclamations, however nice, have failed to appeal to a critical mass, without which the slogans lose their shine. Talking of corruption, democratisation is no panacea to it, but when backed by reforms, democratic accountability complements political will. That too is not happening here.
Democracy is in part a theory about how best to maximise the promise of power while minimising the threat of its abuse. Democracy is where free and equal citizens participate in their own governance and make power accountable to them. A distinct trend has emerged in Nepal’s body politic — politicians seek to justify their position as a reflection of the people’s desires. But their people are those who support them, not the public. Meanwhile, the King too is asking to trust him while he has failed to trust others. This will not lead to political compromise to enable Nepalis to participate in creating peace. Peace cannot be consolidated if a political system lacks both competence and legitimacy.
In Nepal, democratisation has also been hindered by the development of an unstable and dysfunctional party system. The desire of those who had power to maintain it, and of others to enrich themselves via politics have had a negative impact on the party system. It is, hence, time for a new movement that can gain the trust of people by putting forward a full reform programme based on democratic principles. Constitutional reform is seems to be still far away. But if the crisis is to be resolved and solidified into a democratic system, constituent assembly is the only democratic option. The debate over constituent assembly should be understood as an effort to legitimise, modernise and reconstitute the state power. But the greatest weakness of 1990 constitution is that neither the people endorsed it nor the parliament approved it. The royal regime lacks both legitimacy and competency. The February
episode some believe is a setback for democracy; it is more than that. The opaqueness of decisions, curtailed freedom of press, and restriction on civil liberties, have hardly any reason for doubt that Nepal is falling into the trap of renewed authoritarianism. But resolving current uncertainty constitutes the biggest challenge for Nepal in fulfilling the people’s hope for a democratic future. If the current trends are unchanged, Nepal could lead to even more difficult times with probable change of its entire political system in unpredictable ways. Too often it is assumed that Nepal is at a turning point, but seems to be heading nowhere.
Thapa is professor of political science, TU