Democracy in Nepal What lies in store for the people?

Ganga Thapa

One benefit of the royal takeover is that it gave democratic forces a space, which they could use fully.

Discussions about democracy are increasingly diversified and modified among formal, informal, strong, lean, representative, direct, popular, guided, liberal, etc. There is nothing like the best political system for all countries, however. Yet, democracy circumscribes a large acceptable boundary around conflict, recognising that conflict is one of its most constructive engines for organising, unifying opinion, creating opposition and expressing truth and understanding. Nepal’s 12 years of experiment with democracy indicates that democratic transition and consolidation constitute two quite distinct processes of political change and that success in the first does not necessarily imply a similar success in the second. There is no common perception on when Nepal will convert from monarchical dictatorship to multiparty democracy. However, one factor in the collapse of the democratisation process is the political culture and the existing rules of the game, in which compromise is not seen as a sign of rationality. This has contributed to a zero-sum game.

The problems facing Nepal may not be unique because many others exhibit the same hangover symptoms, a common legacy of authoritarian rule. One consequence of the the February 1 royal takeover is a period of indiscriminate violence and forced silence. King Gyanendra’s moves so far suggest that he is not willing to compromise his military-backed power through negotiations with the Maoists, nor is he willing to concede any ground to the political parties. Particularly, the King, like his father King Mahendra in 1960, is trying to justify his usurpation of executive authority by putting blame squarely on the parties. He offers no room for compromise for democratic development, contrary to his claims, however ironic, of intervening to arrest the rot in democracy. Moreover, the King has freed himself from political manoeuvring to declare total war against the Maoists, while simultaneously sidelining the parties. Hence the prospects of reconciliation between the King and the political forces have become difficult. The legacies of right authoritarianism, rather than the left, destroyed the image of democracy as a force for justice and peace. This level of arrogant antagonism has its bases in habitual tendency of authoritarianism in ignoring public opinion and in other sociological phenomena like individualism and feudalism.

Many Nepalis argue that the monarchy in Nepal always sought to weaken the democratic institutions by viewing democracy as endangering its very existence. Those who thought that the revival of active monarchy would do better must be disappointed by now because the overall performance of King Gyanendra is highly negative. In fact, he delivered nothing of what he had promised in the last six months. Even worse, the boundaries of political conflict intensified with ideological polarisation, deaths and suffering after the King’s desire of a creative monarchy. One critical factor attributed to the failure of democracy is the inability of the parties and their leaders to rein in on traditional aristocracy, the force of repression, despite the constitutional provisions. They could not effectively undertake mobilisation, socialisation and organisation functions of the political society. However, one advantage of the royal takeover is that it gave democratic forces a space, which they can use to strengthen and democratise their organisations and forge a broad coalition among heterogeneous political groups to control the centuries-old supremacy of the monarchy. In this context, the latest cycle of opposition to the monarchical dictatorship is important but without the transformation of Nepali political culture into a full-blown participatory one, and the Nepalis into active citizens, a reform in the political milieu is bound to fail again. Indispensable as they are as an agent of democratic consolidation, the political parties have to do much more than mobilise personal support for themselves and their leadership. Before party leaders can expect the masses to support them on a continuing basis they must have a new mission to pursue with solutions to these new threats and challenges.

An alliance between the Maoists and the political parties is of utmost urgency. In democracy people do not have to go to war to change their government, instead they can vote it out of office at election time. But if a political system is based on forceful repression, they have the right to regain their freedom by force. If popular leaders are committed to democracy and enjoy broad legitimacy in their organisations and movements, prospects for democracy are better. Also, as there is a widening demand for constitutional change, the constituent assembly is the only peaceful and democratic option that would enjoy legitimacy and a substantial mandate for carrying out political reforms and preparing for a just society and welfare state. It is necessary to determine the type of new democratic political system that Nepalis favour.

Thapa is professor of Politics, TU