Lurking danger Towards a directed democracy?

Ganga Thapa

The transition to democracy in Nepal after the breakdown of absolute monarchy has been thwarted by a wave of political violence, disorder, reemergence of despotic traditional authorities with concomitant social and economic dislocation. One trend is clearly identified: national rules and practices of democracy have become increasingly contested and, in the case of Nepal, the domestic factors include the lack of a democratic tradition, interventionist monarchy, and the lack of an enduring political party system.

The major threat to democratic sustainability is that the 1990 constitution laid out the rules of the political game, but now it has been marginalised by the monarchy. Though the probability of it is unknown, yet constituent assembly could establish peace without losers. Plain and simple, the people of Nepal must become the authors of the constitution. The restructuring of power mechanisms is necessary because under the 1990 constitution, unlike in other countries, there is no democratic institution which could check the power of the King.

One of the challenges to democratic consolidation is the successful management of the military under democratic control. The argument is that where the military holds the reins of power, it will be able to retain prerogatives. Any situation in which political power is highly concentrated in the hands of a small group of elites fundamentally undermines the prospects for a democratic consolidation. In this context, the Nepali army remains unreformed because of the lack of democratic civilian control, and hence, cannot be considered the guardian of the state in real terms. Its relationship with society continues to be precarious and its inability to deal with the challenges is clearly connected to the failure to undertake real military reform.

The consolidation of democracy is unthinkable without political parties. One factor in the failure of the parties to assert their power was their inability to maintain a consistent policy and a unified vision aimed at tackling simmering economic and political conflicts. Moreover, if the emerging party system is fragmented, and several of the newly formed parties are transient in character, it is doubtful that they could manage the social, economic and political problems of the country. Yet the central question is to what extent the military-backed monarch will achieve his self-imposed targets without politically constructivist work with the political forces.

In taking over, the King took advantage of undeveloped political organisations in order to enhance his personal power, even while maintaining the regime’s resilience in the face of pressures for democratisation. The most remarkable feature of the post-February 1 regime is the gerontocratic character of the administration, the renewed position of the panchayat bureaucracy. The focus should not be simply on what type of political system exists, but rather on the foundation upon which it is laid.

There is no immediate threat to the survival of the monarchy, but the incompatibility of the regime’s politico-ideological agenda with modern-day life styles, its dependency on the outside world and the weak economy, are ominous signs looming on the horizon. Even if the King claims his coup was conducted for the sake of establishing good governance, this must be achieved through a process of accountability and within the framework of parliamentary democracy; not by personified, monolithic, and traditional power.

This crisis is by no means the first crisis the Nepali people have faced in the country’s history. Nor is it the first time political parties and the military-backed monarchy have clashed. However, after the palace massacre, the democratic wave seemed to be moving into reverse.

The Maoist uprising is not a single event; it is the eruption of socio-economic contradictions of Nep-ali. It is an internal ideological war resulting from centuries of political neglect, divisive social system, and a long conflict-ridden Nepali history. Virtually all of the parties in the conflict — primarily the monarchy, the Maoists, and the political parties — seem to be thinking tactically rather than strategically, and their sole purpose is to grab power and resources; and it is all the more reason to be pessimistic. A peace process in Nepal cannot work unless it is serious, sustainable and strategic enough.

Today Nepal faces dangers without precedent: the Maoists and a military-backed monarchy both emphasise a new state order. In such a case, a radical political struggle or a catastrophic civil war may prevail, paving the way for authoritarian pluralism characterised by restraints of varying degrees upon politics, as practised in South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, or for some form of directed democracy as we witnessed in Myanmar, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines for several decades until recently or a possible take-over by Maoist insurgents for a short time with traditional Leninism.

Thapa is professor of politics, TU