Road ahead What kind of democracy?

Following the spread of democracy across large parts of the world during the mid-1980s and early 1990s, empirical and comparative research on democratisation processes has significantly increased. The difficulties associated with democratic transition and the analyses of volatile political systems have contributed to the increased interest in the field of democratisation. While the number of democracies increased following the Cold War, many of these regimes are still in a transitional phase coming out of their authoritarian past. They often encounter many of the same difficulties that other fledgling democracies face; many of the difficulties arise primarily from their specific political and social contexts. Nepal successfully completed the first stage of transition from a despotic monarchy to a multiparty democracy fifteen years ago. Although democratic institutions were created, other necessary preconditions like establishing a middle class, a competitive party system and a strong economy were missing. Nepal’s current situation is similar to what Dahl describes in terms of ‘democratic paradox’ in which citizens have low faith in democratic institutions but high esteem for democratic principles and ideals. And that the paradox is resolved if citizens mainly perceive democracy in terms of political rights and not political responsibilities.

With the inauguration of a directed democracy by King Gyanendra in October 2002, Nepal’s difficulties have only been compounded. And since February 1 Nepal has been governed in a fashion of a ‘quasi-terrorist autocracy’. All political powers are now concentrated in the King’s hands while the institutions are merely rubber-stamps. The King’s power ambitions contribute significantly to the birth of obscurantism in society, and a peaceful solution to the Maoist crisis remains impossible.

The Maoists’ ‘war of liberation’ is a contributing factor to Nepal’s halting the process of democratisation. This war has not only polarised the society, but it also gave the King an opportunity to further consolidate his power under the guise of providing security. Both these issues speak a lot about the complex nature of Nepal’s socio-economic fabric and the democratic process itself. While the King suggests military solutions to the conflict, social conflicts can be addressed more effectively through the reform of political institutions.

Predictably, peace cannot be achieved without the broad coalition of democratic forces for convening an assembly to write a new constitution and unless the King gives up Western military hardware to contain Maoist insurgency. It will moreover be seen that the political relevance of the monarchy and Maoism are not the requisite of a democratic polity. Referendum on monarchy is a good option, particularly to reduce the volume of armed conflict, but for this, the King’s giving up executive power is a potential first step. This is a fundamental reality that both the international community and Nepali leaders must take into account. In addition to structural changes, Nepal needs leaders who can help to guide the path to a truly representative democracy. In the past, leaders like B P, Ganeshman, Manmohan, by their incisive judgment and a sense of responsibility, guided their parties, largely, in the right direction. The leaders now on the scene not only lack these qualities, but they are also formalistic, indecisive, espouse linear views of political development, and are focused on material factors.

Presently, leaders of major parties declared that they will mobilise against the King in what they call ‘the final push for freedom”. While this is an optimistic declaration, these leaders are still confronted with three choices: a) go it alone, relying on their own strength, b) forge an alliance with the Maoist rebels, or c) revive the alliance with the monarch, although there is no guarantee that the King would reciprocate. There is a compelling need for the leaders and their parties to develop a framework that guides democratisation and to create a system in which the leadership grows and the elected leader commands the grassroots support. If democracy is to succeed, parties need to create their own esprit de corps, which Blumer defines as the ‘organising of feelings on behalf of the movement’. They need to deal with the current crisis with decisive intervention and not treat it merely as a moment of fragmentation, dislocation or destruction. Also it should be remembered that one of the main factors in ensuring the widespread support for rebels is the perception that they will bring an end to traditional hierarchical politics, and as a result of this an informed citizenry govern on the basis of a rational understanding that they have a full range of rights as citizens. In every sense, Nepal needs to switch over to some form of proportional system to balance majority viewpoints through a federal system with a parliamentary consensual multiparty republican form of government.

Thapa is professor of Politics, TU