Opportunities and dangers - From authoritarianism to democracy

Can we speak of a brewing crisis in democracy here? Surely this is an intriguing question. The normative view of defenders of constitutionalism is that democracy requires both majority rule and protection of fundamental rights, and so they find themselves having to defend judicial activism as well. Certain elements are common to all systems, but each may be pervaded by its distinctive characteristics. While the deliberations may sometimes be construed as differences between interest-based and value-based policies, we must be aware that democracy always remains in some sort of crisis. The ongoing debate is fundamentally a power struggle. To be sure, the reforms made after the breakdown of authoritarian rule represent only a small portion of the population rather than empowering the marginalised and muzzled people to participate in governance. One of the key tenets of the argument for not acting early has been that what is needed to be done can be done when the time comes. Stability is based on a proper functioning balance of power. If the state elites can assess the national interests and respond soberly to shifting influences, the character of regime — whether democratic or authoritarian — is not an important consideration.

On a more conciliatory note, democracy projects both hope and dissatisfaction. While those who formulate government policies depend on votes and other expressions of preferences, democracy is primarily dependent on citizens, not voters. Even when those advocating the fall of royal autocracy have refocused their commitment on encouraging democratic governance by its significance ‘as a member of the public in a political community’, the choice has yet to be made. While there are varied interpretations to the word ‘democracy’, behaviourally, however, Nepal at best offers a ‘pseudo-democracy’ or ‘ authoritarian democracy’, a beautiful oxymoron invented by Chilean dictator Pinochet to characterise his regime. Paradoxically, being democratic and claiming to be one are two different aspects. How can democracy work when most people live in poverty because the Iron Triangle of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen appropriates the political, economic, and social space? While each case differs, some core questions are common. Nepal’s difficulty perhaps lies in putting the personal differences and animosities aside, and finding a way to work constructively for the common good.

There is another, more subtle, danger. The question is whether PM Koirala with his unchecked authority, shady past and advanced clientelism can indeed promote democracy, especially when things remain still vague. It is now ten months that Koirala, the first man of the people to hold unlimited federal powers in a notoriously divided society, has sustained peace. Still no strategy has been developed to kick at the problem to have a political settlement. In fact, Socrates once said, ‘the life that is unexamined is not worth living”. We do not hesitate to admit that such a situation ultimately helps conservative forces, and even ‘browns’ may return at some point and control the policy agenda without convening the constituent assembly (CA) as an initial step in the endeavour to consolidate a full-blown democracy. Although the Draft Interim Constitution has emerged as a much more progressive document in terms of enhancing mass politics and decreasing the influence of traditional stakeholders, there is the need for the presence of individuals with special qualities and characteristics.

The most visible void at present is the absence of visionary political leadership who can genuinely swing public opinion in terms of the values being instilled and promoted to consolidate the essential features of democratic society — economic protection, social welfare, and liberal views. Disagreement can be a sign of vitality. But unless community as a whole shares a common concern toward policies of public interest, there is reason to believe that pitfalls are likely to be encountered in the democratisation process. Another snag is that it is not enough for the Seven-Party Alliance and Maoists (SPAM) to merely proclaim that all is right. Others too must see it that way. Unless attempts are made to build political culture rooted in democratic practice by involving marginalised groups, CA elections are likely to exacerbate a conflict just as they can moderate it.

There are grounds for hope. The present freedom of expression and organisation are without precedents. People know what they do not want; yet we need to delve into the past in a philosophic manner to learn about things that we have taken for granted. It is essential not to misread the history of the monarchy which has never voluntarily agreed and come forward to reform the state so that public confidence in democratic ideals increases and a great majority of the population ultimately can fully accept its legitimacy. Whatsoever we do, we must know the underlying meaning and purpose and remain sincere toward one another.

Thapa is professor of Politics, TU