Democratic struggles have just begun

  • Political parties constitute the central mechanism that drives Nepal’s democracy. We must spend all our energy in reforming them so that they are more democratic in representation and more effective in functioning
- Ajaya Bhadra Khanal, Kathmandu

Feb 19, 2018-

In 1948, Rana Prime Minister Padma Shum Shere Jung Bahadur Rana sought to exercise the “supreme authority” vested to him through the sacred Panja-patras by the Shree Panch Maharajadhirajas of Nepal to promulgate a new constitution and abort an imminent political revolution.

The preamble to his failed constitution outlined three rationales for doing so: bringing Nepal in line with the advanced nations of the world and giving “our beloved motherland her rightful place in the comity of nations;” resurrecting ancient ideals of the Panchayat to bring “our dear people” closer to every branch of administration; and enhancing the peoples prosperity and happiness.

However, Padma Shum Shere noted that “progress in giving effect of this policy can only be achieved by successive stages and must be guided by the cooperation received from those to whom new opportunities have been offered and by the extent to which further confidence can be reposed upon their sense of responsibility.” In other words, the process of democratization had to be gradual and the people had to prove that they could be trusted to handle something that was as delicate as a democracy.

The notion that ordinary people are not capable of handling democracy and that the educated rulers have to manage political freedom on behalf of the people resonates with the current political discourse around federalism and democratic local governance. 

But much more importantly, Padma’s speech highlights the historical conflict between two opposing tendencies that have become even more relevant today: between patrimonialism and democracy, between the rule of man and the rule of law, between the sovereignty of rulers and the sovereignty of the people.

After the promulgation of a new constitution in 2015, which has ended monarchy, federalized the state and brought the state closer to the people, this historical struggle is being played out in the central arena of political parties. 

As the Nepali state evolves from the top-down, and from the centre to the periphery, political parties have begun to play a much more central role in Nepal’s democracy. If democracy is a chariot, then the political parties are the axles.

There is, therefore, a real danger that the political parties may succumb and become torn apart by the two opposing tendencies. In fact, we are already seeing worrying signs of this happening. Multiple insidious factors are distorting and weakening the ability of Nepal’s political parties to represent the people’s interests and deliver the fruits of democracy.


Opposing tendencies

Until the 1950 revolution and the subsequent democratic transition, Nepal was a patrimonial state where there was little distinction between the property of the state and the property of the ruler. The situation now is not so much different. All decision-making power in our political parties flows directly from the leader. When they hold public office, they behave as if public property is their private property.

Political leaders in Nepal have also refused to accept the transition from the rule of man to a rule of law. This has generated frustrating instances of abuses of power, nepotism, corruption and impunity.  In Nepal, the most recurrent problems are the use of discretion in dispensation of the law, unequal application of the law, and abuse of authority (i.e., ministers and public office holders do not exercise the powers conferred on them in good faith, fairly, or for the purpose for which the powers were conferred).

The 1990 political movement marked a water-shed moment when the idea of sovereignty was transferred from the King to the people. Throughout South Asia, political parties display a culture of top-down control. These patrimonial motivations continue to pose challenges to Nepal’s process of trickle-down democratization and the political process to re-organize and re-distribute political power. 

The refusal by political leaders to acknowledge the difference between the private and the public has undermined the interests of political parties and the nation-state. For example, individual leaders seek to remain in power at the cost of weakening their party and the ideal of competitive politics. Individual leaders use corruption, patrimonial systems, and patronage networks outside of the formal institutions to strengthen their position. They also subvert and compromise national interests in order to accumulate wealth and power.

One major implication of this dialectic is that even if we have separation of powers in the formal constitutional design, invisible and hidden forms of power exercised by the political elites will continue to play a decisive role through the informal arena. The tendency to accumulate and centralize power and use it in a non-transparent manner for private benefits will continue.

While the obsession with money distorts the functioning of democracy and the state, the desire for accumulation of power disrupts the rule of law.  Transitioning to a rule of law is as difficult as the transition to a developed economy.

The 2015 constitution was meant to resolve the crisis of representation and the crisis of state functioning. A brief review of the motivations of political elites shows us that this crisis was a result of several factors including the primacy of money and the use of corruption as a means of accumulating wealth and power. This has been compounded by the fact that extractive networks in Nepal have now been integrated into the functioning of political parties, deepening the crisis. 

Over the years, the process of democratization and development has shifted focus from bureaucratic corruption to political corruption and impunity. Since 1990, capturing the state was integral to getting hold of resources necessary for competitive politics. Unfortunately, such a strategy frequently led to capture of state institutions that oversaw revenue streams and distortion of state institutions designed to oversee the state agencies and regulate the market.

Control over political finance has become the primary means of accumulating and maintaining power. Political leaders, following in the footsteps of Girija Prasad Koirala, have realized that controlling the purse strings is key to controlling the party.

An important trend in politics is the rise of brokers who assist the political leaders in the accumulation of wealth and power. After Koirala’s demise, political power in Nepal is accumulating in three major political power centres—one revolving around KP Sharma Oli, second revolving around Sher Bahadur Deuba/Arzoo Debua and the third revolving around Pushpa Kamal Dahal—with isolated nodes functioning autonomously and seeking to accumulate wealth and power to compete with the three. Although political parties compete for popular votes, they are brought together by these brokers when it comes to sharing the spoils and maintaining impunity.


Way forward

Despite these challenges, there is yet hope for Nepal’s democracy. Political parties constitute the central mechanism that drives Nepal’s democracy. They are the only meaningful civil society body that connects the people to the state. Since Nepal’s democratic future hinges on the ability of the political parties to represent the interests of the people and deliver the fruits of democracy through the state, we must spend all our energy in reforming the political parties so that they are more democratic in representation and more effective in functioning.

Competitive politics offers another hope. In order to gain traction, political parties must widen their constituency and become more inclusive to include marginalized groups. Becoming more inclusive, broadens the scope of inter-party democracy and forces the party to become more democratic. If the parties fail to accommodate the demands of the marginalized groups, the groups will choose other parties or form new ones.

In the absence of democratic success, identity groups will become more hardened posing challenges for the future of democracy. Democratic pluralism, therefore, requires political parties to be inclusive, so as to lessen the salience or rationale of identity politics.

Another hopeful sign of Nepal’s democracy is the presence of actors like Dr Govinda KC who can lead and drive social movements of integrity. Such social movements are already buttressed by a robust media and investigative journalism. However, more people of integrity need to network closely and be more strategic in gathering evidence, as well as in sequencing and targeting of such interventions.

Democratization and de-democratization in their various guises are so much intertwined that they now appear as if they are two faces of the same coin. Democracy is not a natural state of equilibrium, but a constant struggle–a society has to constantly redistribute and recycle wealth and power lest it accumulates in the hands of a few. 

Published: 19-02-2018 11:00

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