Print Edition - 2014-09-14  |  Free the Words

Unsuitable model

  • The Westminster model of parliamentary democracy will only work in a homogenous population
Unsuitable model

Sep 13, 2014-

After conflicts, transitional governments are primarily responsible for bridging the old and new orders of rule. The first Constituent Assembly (CA) failed to deal with one of the most contentious of issues: forms of governance. Debate on this issue has once again surfaced and it is crucial that this issue be resolved if we are seeking durable peace, stability, and governance.

In political science, the Westminster system is used synonymously with majority models. In a Westminster parliamentary democracy, majorities govern while minorities oppose. Great Britain and its former colonies, including India, practice this model or slight variations on it. Nepali politics, often influenced by India, copied this model after the 1990 political revolution.

Majoritarian tendencies

Republican Nepal is seeking to adopt liberalism in social and economic issues while trying to be inclusive of political issues. However, the principle behind the majority model of governance opposes the idea of inclusiveness and consensus. Renowned economist and Nobel Prize winner Arthur Lewis has argued that majority rule and the government-versus-opposition pattern of politics that it implies can be interpreted as undemocratic because they follow the principle of exclusion. Moreover, the Westminster model contradicts the wider definition of democracy, which is: ’for the people, by the people and to the people. This model implies that winning parties may make all governmental decisions and that losers may criticise but not govern. These two phenomena are incompatible. Just granting a right to vote in elections to the marginalised or minority populations is not democracy, unless their voices are heard in decision-making processes. The majority and minority model is therefore certainly not the best political option in a population that is sharply divided.  

The issue of inclusiveness often challenges advocates of the Westminster model by accusing their system of being undemocratic. If today’s minority becomes the majority in the next election, instead of being condemned to permanent opposition, that model may realise democracy. This is how Britain’s, New Zealand’s, and Barbados’ two-party systems work. However, Nepal is not going to adopt a two-party system. Nepal’s supporters of the Westminster model are advocating a majority-minority in a multi-party system, which is similar to Indian democracy. Yet, Indian political ideologues and think tanks are also debating how to make their democracy more people-friendly and inclusive. Since the mid-80s, none of the political parties in India had won majority seats in Parliament, except for the current Modi government. Therefore, each political party in India was forced to form alliances.

Condition of homogeneity

Alternations between majorities and minorities have operated perfectly in Barbados since independence. Neither of its two parties has won more than two elections in a row. In Britain and New Zealand, however, there have been long periods where one of the two main parties was kept out of power. Even during those extended periods of exclusion from power, one could reasonably argue that democracy and majority rule were not in conflict, because of the presence of a second condition. Indeed, all three countries are relatively homogenous societies and their major parties usually have not been very far apart in their policy outlooks because they have tended to stay in close to the political center.

In less ethnically homogeneous countries like Nepal, neither condition applies. The policies advocated by the major parties tend to diverge to a great extent, and voters’ loyalties are frequently more rigid, reducing the chance of the alteration of principal parties’ in exercising governmental power. Nepali society in recent years has been more divided along ethnicity, ideology, linguistic, religion, or cultural lines into virtually separate sub societies with their own political parties, interest groups. In such a situation, the flexibility necessary for a Westminster model is likely to be absent. Under these conditions, majority rule is not only undemocratic but also dangerous, because minorities continually denied access to power will feel excluded and discriminated and may lose their allegiance to the regime. This phenomenon may lead Nepal to another insurgency and radicals in Nepal are still seeking a political situation to play with.

Nepali politics is extremely divided along political ideology. In most deeply-divided societies, majority-minority ruling politics in central governance can spell majority dictatorship. This tradition may transfer to its provinces when Nepal adopts federalism, for example, non-Madhesis in the Tarai and non-Limbus in the east may suffer. What such societies need is a democratic regime that emphasises consensus instead of opposition and tries to maximise the size of the ruling majority instead of being satisfied with a bare majority.

Paneru is a faculty member at Strayer University, the US

Published: 14-09-2014 09:07

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