Embattled democracy : The challenge is to find a way out

Studies on transition from authoritarian to democratic order, which ideally demarcate the phases of liberalisation, democratisation, and consolidation, have shown that turmoil invariably emanates from the rivalry for supremacy among contenders for power at extremities.

This brings the very rules of the game under attack and the resultant loss of key supporters. This is presently Nepal’s situation where it is not possible to guess where we are headed for. Ever since the overthrow of King Gyanendra’s right-wing empire, progress has been slow in reforming the state apparatus by resolving the elitist clientelism, bringing the army under civilian authority or building a new support base for democracy. Whether Nepal can substantially alter the organisation and style of governance remains an open question. The most troubling aspect is the institutional disarray facing the state with its inherent difficulties in undertaking state reforms. It is hard to measure the content of democracy, whereas it is believed to have been consolidated when there are no political, military, or economic threats. Yet from people’s view, a system is considered to have become consolidated when most of them begin to rely on it as the best ‘way to govern the collective life.’

Although competition is back with the end of direct involvement of monarchy in politics, it is very difficult to agree upon a model to resolve differences on substantive issues. Nepal has produced a tentative, filtered and hybrid democracy with traces of authoritarianism, what Pridham calls negative consolidation of a regime whereby democratic procedures remain vulnerable to reversals. The consolidation is deemed negative because citizens believe that a certain constitutional structure is unfair and an alternative system is more attractive to the influential actors in military, finance, big business, banks, trade unions and to disgruntled citizens.

It is argued that democratisation creates a wide spectrum of politically significant groups with diverse interests. There are indications of existence of groups pressing for a non-democratic solution to the current crisis. Of particular concern is a violent conflict between the King and democratic forces, which has subsided for the time being but may recur. The monarchy can make efforts to weed out the roots of democracy. The outcomes of a revolution can be transformed into legal rights only when it has succeeded and the revolutionaries have been transformed as the founders of a new regime. There is no single route to democratisation, yet Nepal’s situation is something like Iran after the Shah’s overthrow. Democratic consolidation after a popular opening is far from a certainty. They fail to grab the opportunities to reconcile and create proper boundaries to overcome shortsighted bargains; they prefer to continue with the bickering. This has alienated the people from politics and public discourse who are deeply cynical about their leaders.

If one believes in government by consent, one must believe that the people may change their political system. One of the main aims of Jan Andolan II was the creation of a federal republic. There are groups with vested interests that would like to jeopardise the process, especially the PM and the parliament. If those in power insist on monopolising it and refuse to take care of public demand, the democratisation process will surely be very rough.

It seems that the parties have not yet established themselves as meaningful intermediary structures between the state and society. There is neither a consensus on resolving all issues democratically, nor has the monarchy agreed to accept civilian authority. This reflects the absence of ideology competing with democracy. This, combined with problems of establishing a constitutional order, reorienting the authoritarian bureaucracy, and stabilising political adjustments, the promotion of democracy becomes an occasional sideshow inconsistent with realistic expectations. The UN cannot throw its weight behind one party, but its expertise makes it most helpful as a facilitator. It can help stop the flow of weapons into Nepal. The UN is often beholden to major powers like India, the US and China, which have their own interests here. They may not act in unison to lighten the UN’s burden. At best, the UN can act as a ‘supervisory authority.’

To translate promises, consensus on integrating the Maoists into the government is a must. What will happen next is impossible to predict. But unless the parliament is scrapped and SPA shares power with the Maoists in what problem-solving theorists argue ‘integrative bargaining’ may lead to asymmetrical outcomes. There are always problems in an alliance between an armed guerrilla and a party committed to act within the institutional framework. Yet the challenge is to find a way out. Finally, while there are various democratic modes of constitution making, a constitution drafted by an elected assembly must be ratified by the people through a referendum.

Thapa is professor of Politics, TU