New Nepal : Real possibility of a republican order

Since the end of the Cold War, particularly after the breakdown of socialism between 1989 and 1991 and the subsequent rise of new states, the virtues of democracy have been championed all around the world. Democracy has become the most widely accepted system of governance, as it protects the people’s fundamental freedoms of association, speech, belief, etc., and upholds the rule of law.

In Nepal’s case, although the 19-day people’s movement cleared the way for the creation of a new constitution that could leave monarchy largely powerless or even eliminate it altogether and dismantle the traditional power structures antithetical to democracy, the process of democratic consolidation still remains uncertain. Though the prospects of repairing the damage on the part of the government and the governed appear fairly promising, but the risk of ending up benefiting the other side should not be ignored at the same time.

It would be tragic if the monarchy took advantage of the fragmented ruling coalition to creep into power through backdoor. Obviously, the first phase of democratisation is the end of authoritarian rule. Democracy must be seen as ‘the only game in town’ for the democratic consolidation.

While the rebels agreed to come to the political mainstream through the 12-point understanding with the seven-party alliance, it was the people power, demonstrated through the street protests where they marched in hundreds of thousands refusing to accept anything less than democracy, that ended King Gyanendra’s despotic regime. The easy part of the struggle for democracy is over, now comes the hard part — building a stable multiparty system capable of resolving the Maoist insurgency. The seven-party alliance has agreed to the key rebel demand by committing itself to writing a new constitution and by announcing the mutual ceasefire. However, it is to be seen how the new government performs this protective role, which will be the acid test of its legitimacy. It is not whether a state is a liberal democracy that most fundamentally determines its legitimacy; it is how well it secures its citizens against the worst evils. Moreover, it is better to focus on political accountability rather than elections when discussing contemporary politics because the King had seized absolute power on February 1, 2005, citing the government’s failure to quell the insurgency.

It is clear that King Gyanendra was forced to relinquish power mainly because he did not realise the growing people power. Non-violent protests toppled Marcos in Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, ended apartheid in South Africa and finished Pinochet’s rule in Chile. Communism in Eastern Europe collapsed when unarmed protestors thronged the streets. It did the same to Georgian Shevardnadze in the Rose revolution of 2003. Ukrainians brought Orange revolution a year later. Of course, people power sometimes fails, as in the case of China’s Tiananmen Square.

After 14 months of the King’s autocratic rule, the necessary elements for a republican set-up are now in place, which were missing in 1990. Time has come to say that the end of monarchy has been long overdue and if things have to be changed we all have to do our part. It is a historical opportunity for Nepalis to have a republican state and we should not miss it. Even nominal monarchy has no relevance in Nepal today after King Gyanendra ascended the throne in bizarre circumstances in 2001. It is thus important for the politicians to now grasp the real nature of monarchy and not repeat the mistakes. Although this would not be a quick or easy endeavour, yet, for the first time in Nepal’s history, a serious alternative arena of political power and influence has arisen with so much vitality that has threatened the politics-as-usual.

The House revival is not a panacea, yet, with a political solution in place, it may open the gates for debate and establish favourable conditions to bring the rebels in a peaceful political contest. There is a need to contain violence to help establish peace. The insurgency is a serious challenge that requires a pointed response rather than blunderbuss approach. To nip the insurgency in the bud, there has to be a government that represents different interests and ethnicities.

Nepal has a complex past and the present conflict cannot be understood by a simple dichotomy of economic frustrations. The new government must create a sound, solid and cohesive nation. It should extract and mobilise resources and extend law and order to the country’s periphery. A new constitution based on popular aspirations will break the traditional structures and introduce institutional arena that would promote open dialogue and deliberation between alternative viewpoints. Traditional approaches of bargaining for compromises only provide partial remedies that cannot carry out any policy corresponding to the needs of the population.

Thapa is professor of Politics, TU