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