National crisis Is there a transition to democracy?

Ganga Thapa

In Nepal, the transition to democracy following the 1990 pro-democracy movement was swift and fairly uncomplicated. As a result, Nepal created a new regime that abolished absolute monarchy with no overtly undemocratic rules, a majoritarian electoral law, and a parliamentary system. The transition was negotiated between the opposition and the incumbent elite who both had a stake in the settlement.

Ironically, reforms through negotiation made the transition relatively smooth but hindered democratic consolidation by reducing the capacity of new rulers to develop consensus on key institutional rules. The most direct impact of the mode of transition on post-transitional political dynamics was that the power base of the monarchy was not undermined. The result is that Nepal now has ‘authoritarian pluralism’, ‘restricted democracy’ or ‘regressed transition’ — a political situation with some democratic elements but with limits on competition, participation, and liberties.

If the recent history is any guide, the most problematic aspect with regard to democratic consolidation is the monarchy. The monarchy never acted as an accelerator in the process of socioeconomic and political reform that would contribute to the well-being of the Nepali people, rather it acted as a brake and even reverse gear. For example, after the collapse of Rana regime, King Tribhuvan did not convene a constituent assembly but gave a new constitution. King Mahendra killed Nepal’s first version of democracy. Even though King Birendra had studied at Eton and Harvard, he maintained absolute monarchy through the Panchayat system after he succeeded to the Throne in 1972.

More to the point, when the current situation of insurrection and economic collapse is most acute, the revival of active monarchy that is misinterpreting the Constitution is a principal problem. Now power is personalised around King Gyanendra, who simultaneously holds the positions of the head of state, government, and the supreme commander of the army—a notorious political situation under which the King’s word is final and binding. The result is that the state is no longer a political force, and the rule of law is weak.

However, the monarchy alone cannot be held responsible for what hinders democratic consolidation. The powerlessness of new rulers was so extreme that they were unable to forge consensus on a new constitution. Significantly, the parties were antagonistic, their attitude toward one another is stereotyped rather than tending to identify common positions. They were unable to catch up with increasing frustration in the population in terms of providing the promised goods and containing latent ethnic and caste cleavages. The Maoists capitalised on the shortcomings of this practice but they are only one part of the problem.

Yet democracy will revive and thrive if the King ends his rule, respects the rule of law, fully comes to understand that his interests are a few among the many in Nepali society, and accepts subordination to civilian government. And, if the rebels seek victory through negotiations, not on the battlefield. While a strong democracy that focuses on citizenship and civic competence is always desirable, but if the monarchy cannot go with democracy, it will preprare the ground for an eventual political set-up without it. In democracies, a referendum is a recognised method of resolving an important issue, e.g. Republic versus Monarchy, but under the given conditions, constituent assembly will be a good compromise for the peaceful settlement of disputes.

Of course, a new constitution will not solve all our problems but if we craft a reform that achieves legitimacy and acceptability by all, we might just get better governance. On the contrary, the longer it takes to find a solution, the more people will fall victim to military-backed authoritarianism. It is possible that we will lose the opportunity and momentum, which is fundamentally related to an overhaul of the governing system. Revision of the Constitution through restoration of the parliament can be an option but without the vanguard role of the people it is unlikely to resolve the crisis and create the conditions for political stability. Precisely, the assumption that an elite can make decisions without reference to the majority of the citizens is invalid and cannot be sustained.

The constituent assembly should not be perceived as a new power struggle but as a turning point in the process of democratisation. The current constitution has lost both support and legitimacy because of cataclysmic political events of the left-right dimension. The constituent assembly cou-ld function in two ways — first, naturally, to frame the constitution, and secondly, in capacity of a provisional parliament with an interim constitution to govern the country. However, democratic parties should not join in municipal elections because a partner in an illegitimate government cannot be an alternative to that government.

Thapa is professor of Politics, TU