Print Edition - 2017-03-05  |  Free the Words

Uncertainty, not instability

  • Nepal’s current political problem is an inability to move from a deal-based mechanism to a rule-based one
- Narayan Manandhar

Mar 5, 2017-

Hisila Yami’s reasoning that political instability is a primary factor behind Nepal’s development ills in a recent op-ed published in these pages was an interesting read. Citing relative political stability in present day China and India, along with deficiencies in the current Westminster form of parliamentary system in Nepal, she has recommended a directly elected executive President with a parliament based on proportional representation. However, implementation of the political model proposed by her new political outfit, Naya Shakti, is yet to be sorted out. Whether or not it will resolve the problem of political instability is still uncertain. 

Nepal’s demography is roughly divided into three groups: Bahun/Chettri, Janajati and Tarai/Madhesi. Each group makes up about a third of the Nepali populace. It will be near 

impossible to achieve political stability in a majoritarian system until 

there is a coalition of at least two 

among the three. I have broadly categorised Nepal’s population into three groups simply because the current political faultlines correspond to these three groups. 

As evidence for the political instability, Yami has cited the following historical data: Over the last 66 years of modern day political history (1951-present), we have had 48 governments with an average tenure of 16.5 months. However, it bears mentioning that even during 104 years of absolute Rana rule (1847-1951), the country was marred by political instability. There were family feuds, intrigues and infighting that led to murders, topplings, abdications and resignations.

Possible answers

We cannot assume that economic development hinges on political stability, as there also are highly developed but politically unstable countries. In 2010-11, Belgium functioned without a formal government for a world record of 589 days. Even the US is now poised for political instability. Therefore, political stability may not solve our development problems. The answers have to be sought elsewhere. One such source could be the World Development Report 2017: Governance and The Law, recently published by The World Bank. 

The report points out that “Political pressure for reform (read, development) can come from the top-down (elite bargain) or from the bottom-up (citizen engagement), and often the results of coalitions between elites and citizens. Elites and citizens can also be influenced by international factors.” Since much of the politics in Nepal is controlled by the political elite, we can focus on elite bargaining. However, this does not undermine the importance of the other two factors, that is citizen engagement and international actors.

The report defines four typologies of regimes. This assessment would be based on two distinct features of the polity, namely, political uncertainty and cost of losing power. Though political uncertainty may be intricately tied to the cost of losing power, they are here assumed as separate concepts for the sake of simplicity.

Political uncertainty needs to be differentiated from political instability. If political instability is an outcome measure or an end result, then political uncertainty is a process measure. With this distinction in mind, we can say that political instability is related to the past while political uncertainty is related to the future. Political 

uncertainty implies unpredictability in determining who will hold power in the future. This refers to the access to decision-making power and the lack of internal cohesion in the ruling coalition. Given the state of politics in Nepal, we can fairly assume that the future is set to be politically uncertain. 

The report claims that the cost of losing power is determined by the degree of polarisation of elite preferences—the higher the polarisation, the greater the risk of losing power. At an extreme, the cost may be assassination, imprisonment, exile or expropriation of wealth, power and reputation. It is fair to assume that the cost of losing power was typically high during the Rana oligarchy. In such an environment where there is a risk of losing power, ruling elites seek to repress political opponents. The direct rule by the monarchy also carried this feature of political repression during early stages.

While under the direct rule of king Gyanendra (2002-2006)—especially after the palace massacre, dissolution of Parliament and intensification of the Maoist insurgency—Nepal, as a collapsing state, could be located at the top right corner of the matrix.

Present day Nepali politics is located somewhere in the top-left corner. This is reflected by the bargaining, negotiating and deal-making that are currently taking place among political elites. The elites look for various “insurance mechanisms” to mitigate the risks of political uncertainty and the cost of losing power. There may be several variants of insurance mechanisms—vertical and horizontal shaping 

interests, preference and coalition of the elites—but two of them are worth exploring here. These are deal-based and rule-based mechanisms.

Deal-based vs rule-based

In a deal-based mechanism, the voices of the opponents are bought off through direct payment of rent. These could be in the form of power-sharing agreements, sharing of the spoils of power, arrangements for present or future appointments in lucrative jobs, etc. The deal-based mechanism can only survive in an environment with a small number of elites. Once the numbers expand, the regime has to look for a rule-based mechanism or for additional sources of rent to glue the coalition together. 

How rent is being extracted in Nepal could be a separate study in itself. Nepal’s current political problem has to do with an inability to move from a deal-based mechanism to a rule-based one. It is the rule-based mechanism that is expected to put the country into the lower-left corner of the matrix. This is where political stability and long-term development can take place. In Nepal’s political history, different regimes can be located or shifted from one corner to the other—except the one at the bottom-left corner. Therefore, the problem lies not in political instability but in political uncertainty. 

- Manandhar is a freelance consultant

Published: 05-03-2017 08:30

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