A Crum­bling Democ­racy

Nepal faces an ex­is­ten­tial po­lit­i­cal cri­sis and there is lit­tle hope on the hori­zon to re­solve it.

Southasia - - Contents - By Jan Sharma Dr. Jan Sharma is a Re­search Fel­low at Sangam In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Anal­y­sis and Strate­gic Stud­ies, Kath­mandu. He is also the au­thor of ‘Democ­racy With­out Roots.’

As Nepal falls deeper into po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty, there is lit­tle hope

that it will emerge sta­ble.

The po­lit­i­cal cri­sis in Nepal is grow­ing from bad to worse. The gov­ern­ment re­cently reg­is­tered a bill to amend the In­terim Con­sti­tu­tion to ex­tend the ten­ure of the Con­stituent Assem­bly for three more months. How­ever, the Supreme Court is­sued an in­terim or­der, im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion, thereby re­ject­ing an ex­ten­sion. If the po­lit­i­cal par­ties can­not pro­duce a new con­sti­tu­tion by 27 May, they have no choice but to look for al­ter­na­tives such as a fresh man­date or a ref­er­en­dum. If a de­ci­sion is not taken soon, democ­racy is likely to crum­ble be­fore it stands.

The deep­en­ing cri­sis re­flects the fail­ure of the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship as well as the con­stituent assem­bly, elected in 2008 for two years to draft a new con­sti­tu­tion that would in­sti­tu­tion­al­ize the fed­eral demo­cratic repub­lic. The assem­bly has been ex­tended four times al­ready. A fifth ex­ten­sion is sim­ply not pos­si­ble, at least con­sti­tu­tion­ally. The Supreme Court an­nounced in Novem­ber that there will be no more ex­ten­sions of the assem­bly, which will ter­mi­nate on 27 May. The Court had also asked the gov­ern­ment to look for al­ter­na­tives such as a na­tional ref­er­en­dum or fresh elec­tions.

It is not quite clear why so much fuss is be­ing made on the ex­ten­sion of as use­less an in­sti­tu­tion as the assem­bly. It has long lost its po­lit­i­cal le­git­i­macy. No se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion on the fu­ture po­lit­i­cal frame­work has taken place here. It has not made a sin­gle col­lec­tive de­ci­sion. The assem­bly is, at best a rub­ber stamp in­sti­tu­tion that en­dorses the de­ci­sions of a hand­ful of politi­cians. It has never been, and will never be, a fo­rum where na­tion­ally im­por­tant is­sues are se­ri­ously de­bated and de­ci­sions are taken. It has only served as a shame­less fi­nan­cial li­a­bil­ity in one of the world’s poor­est coun­tries.

The gov­ern­ment’s dar­ing de­ci­sion for ten­ure ex­ten­sion does not only make a mock­ery of the Court ver­dict, but goes against the grain of demo­cratic prin­ci­ples and prac­tices, such as the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, rule of law and con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism. It is in op­po­si­tion to the man­date of the peo­ple. If the gov­ern­ment still goes ahead with an ex­ten­sion, which is pos­si­ble only if it gets a two third ma­jor­ity en­dorse­ment in the assem­bly, it will cre­ate a con­flict be­tween the gov­ern­ment and the ju­di­ciary. If the “po­lit­i­cal supremacy” pre­vails over the ju­di­ciary, it will nail the cof­fin of an in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary for the first time in the his­tory of Nepal. There is no cred­i­ble ba­sis to con­clude that the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship will do some­thing in the ex­tended three months what they have not been able to do in the last four years.

These de­vel­op­ments come amid un­con­firmed ru­mors that the gov­ern­ment is pre­par­ing to clamp a state of emer­gency un­der Ar­ti­cle 143 of the In­terim Con­sti­tu­tion of 2007. How­ever, the con­sti­tu­tion clearly lays down four con­di­tions for the dec­la­ra­tion of an emer­gency: war, ex­ter­nal ag­gres­sion, armed re­bel­lion, or ex­treme eco­nomic dis­ar­ray. Since none of the con­di­tions ex­ist at the mo­ment, an emer­gency is not pos­si­ble. Some op­po­si­tion po­lit­i­cal lead­ers have al­leged that the Maoists are in­sti­gat­ing var­i­ous eth­nic and other groups to cre­ate

such a sit­u­a­tion. Protest demon­stra­tions and bandh have been or­ga­nized but have largely sub­sided fol­low­ing agree­ments be­tween the gov­ern­ment and the ag­i­ta­tors.

The most tricky and keenly dis­puted is­sue is that of the re­struc­tur­ing of the state. Po­lit­i­cal par­ties are not clear on the is­sue and, for strange rea­sons, have evaded any se­ri­ous di­a­logue with the stake­hold­ers, in­clud­ing eth­nic groups and com­mu­ni­ties. As a re­sult, they have made the mess even messier. For ex­am­ple, the po­lit­i­cal par­ties signed a deal on 15 May for the cre­ation of 11 prov­inces with­out nam­ing them or fix­ing their bound­aries. The deal col­lapsed less than 24 hours af­ter it was signed be­cause of the op­po­si­tion from the lead­ers of in­dige­nous na­tion­al­i­ties and Mad­heshi po­lit­i­cal par­ties. Some 320 mem­bers of the 601 mem­ber assem­bly signed a pe­ti­tion op­pos­ing the deal and sub­mit­ted it to Maoist Chair­man Pushpa Ka­mal Da­hal “Prachanda,” who en­cour­aged them to launch an ag­i­ta­tion. The groups an­nounced a three-day Nepal bandh, fol­low­ing which a fresh agree- ment was signed be­tween the gov­ern­ment and the ag­i­ta­tors meet­ing most of their de­mands, in­clud­ing prov­inces with eth­nic iden­tity.

The Nepalese so­ci­ety is in­tensely di­vided on the is­sue of fed­er­al­ism. Apart from par­ti­san po­si­tion­ing and po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency, there is very lit­tle sub­stan­tive de­bate on the en­tire ques­tion of fed­eral re­struc­tur­ing of the Nepalese state. The dis­cus­sion on the is­sue is ba­si­cally flawed as an eco­nomic vi­sion is en­tirely amiss. No one has se­ri­ously chal­lenged the need for fed­er­al­ism. But there are those who ar­gue for re­struc­tur­ing on mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties since Nepal has al­ways been a multi-eth­nic, mul­ti­lin­gual, and multi-re­li­gious so­ci­ety. The lead­ers of in­dige­nous na­tion­al­i­ties and the Mad­heshi po­lit­i­cal par­ties, on the other hand, want the prov­inces de­ter­mined on the ba­sis of eth­nic iden­tity. The eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal em­pow­er­ment of the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and elected bod­ies has not been in­tensely de­bated. In fact, a fed­er­al­ism de­bate is lim­ited to nar­row power shar­ing. The dom­i­nant pa- rochial think­ing does not bode well for long-term po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity and eco­nomic pros­per­ity.

The sec­ond con­tentious is­sue is about the form of gov­ern­ment to be adopted. It is also doubt­ful if the ac­cord on the so-called “mixed” form of gov­ern­ment will work at all. It will mainly con­sist of a di­rectly elected pres­i­dent who will share power with a prime min­is­ter elected by the par­lia­ment. It will mean par­al­lel power cen­ters. The power shar­ing be­tween the two of­fices has not been de­cided, which is a recipe for con­fronta­tion be­tween the two power cen­ters.

The third is­sue is the mixed elec­toral sys­tem – of both di­rect elec­tions and pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion. This will cer­tainly lead to the cre­ation of a hung par­lia­ment. Since po­lit­i­cal par­ties have prob­lems fight­ing each other in­stead of co­habit, po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity will be ob­vi­ous. No prime min­is­ter in Nepal has ever com­pleted a full ten­ure in of­fice. This will only get worse, with tenures counted in months.

The cri­sis in Nepal to­day is mainly be­cause of the fail­ure of the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship, which is thor­oughly cor­rupt. A few peo­ple who have been run­ning most po­lit­i­cal par­ties like their fief­doms are the de­ci­sion­mak­ers. These par­ties are the ma­jor el­e­ments con­tribut­ing to na­tional in­sta­bil­ity and poverty. Yet, there is no de­bate on re­form­ing the par­ties and mak­ing them fi­nan­cially trans­par­ent dur­ing the process of draft­ing a new con­sti­tu­tion. The in­com­pe­tence and indecision of the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship in­spires lit­tle hope for the resolution of the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cri­sis. There is no po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship in sight to ad­dress the cri­sis and pre­vent a crum­bling democ­racy.

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