An elegy to liberal democracyThe rise of anti-liberalism in the West and Nepal is fundamentally different.
The world currently appears unequivocally in agreement that the values and practices of liberal democracy have been rapidly and unabatedly declining for over a decade now. Therefore, the lamentation over the gradual demise of liberal democracy as the mainstay of governing policy in Nepal, that looked so promising during the first half of the 1990s, may sound merely like a fringe argument of this meta-narrative on the rise of antiliberals the world over.
One of the greatest thinkers of the 21st century, Francis Fukuyama, as early as in 2012 warned of the rise of right-wing politics in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and the multitude of socioeconomic disparities among the countries caused by the powerful wave of globalisation. Electoral victories for antiliberal rightwing politicians in the United States, Europe and elsewhere in recent years eventually proved Fukuyama unquestionably right. The rightwing politicians and political forces around the world were clearly emboldened by these victories in the so-called institutionalised democracies. As a result, the larger democracies like India, Brazil, Turkey, Philippines, Italy and Sweden, among several others, witnessed the evocation of 'an exclusionary national identity as a means for frustrated majorities to gird themselves against a changing global and domestic order. By building alliances with or outright capturing mainstream parties on the right, antiliberals have been able to launch attacks on the institutions designed to protect minorities against abuses and prevent monopolisation of power.'
But the rise of anti-liberalism in the West and Nepal is fundamentally different. Nepal now is ruled not by rightists but a popularly elected government of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), which is employing all possible Stalinist tactics to squeeze the liberal democratic political space. One of the default characteristics of communist rule is that all the decisions on state affairs are taken through the party process; the government mechanism unwaveringly implements them without question. Generally, in communist systems, the party and the government both are run by the same people.
Despite the fact that the NCP government came to power with a strong mandate and is headed by the supposedly-powerful Prime Minister KP Oli, the friction between the party and the government is evidently coming to the fore. A week-long Central Committee meeting of the NCP that concluded last Sunday had unambiguously expressed intent to overpower the government. Prime Minister Oli, who is also the co-chairman of the party, had to succumb to the pressure to form a 'review' committee to decide whether the federal parliament should ratify the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Nepal Compact, a $500 million grant project from the US government. The three-member committee headed by a former prime minister Jhalanath Khanal also comprises of another vocal detractor of Oli, Bhim Rawal. Similarly, the Central Committee also decided that its Disciplinary Committee would 'investigate' into the disproportionate amassing of wealth and luxurious lifestyle of the leaders who exercised state-power.
These are clear indications that the NCP high command is determined to rule the roost in running the country. By this, for example, the rationale of parliamentary debate on MCC would not only be preempted by the findings of the new committee, the parliament will also have no option but to uphold whichever way the review finally hinges. Similarly, the very idea of an investigation into perceived corruption by the Disciplinary Committee overshadows the role of the state's governance and corruption control agencies like the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority. To reemphasise, these are only indicative examples of how the democratic space is being gradually captured by the dictatorial approach of the party on taking decisions and forcing the government to implement the same.
The second key risk to Nepal's democracy is borne out of the utterly ineffective political opposition. Regardless of the ideological leaning of the party in ruling and in the (main) opposition benches, only the informed criticism and unconstrained debate initiated by the opposition can consolidate the liberal character of democracy. This is so because every government in power has a dictatorial tilt. But, Nepali Congress, the main opposition party in the federal parliament as well as six out of seven provinces, has remained as good as non-existent. In many critical occasions, it is behaving as if it is an ally of the ruling party. Take the case of the 'unopposed' election of Agni Sapkota to the position of House Speaker, for example. Since the opposition did not field its candidate Sapkota appeared to be a consensus candidate without any question raised on his controversial credentials. Congress could have politically capitalised on Sapkota’s alleged crimes against humanity during the decade-long civil conflict; unfortunately, it seems to be colluding with the NCP with the flimsy hope of bargaining for other nominations. The media, which widely raised the issue of impunity, and civil society groups, which moved the court against the appointment, were left at lurch without any political support.
The greatest risk to Nepal's liberal political values perhaps comes from the status quo supporting regime that rules now. The communist government will rule the country for another three years—barring some extremely untoward and unexpected incident. That means the party high command will largely spell out the agenda and the direction for the government. But this regime has already attacked democracy on two fronts. One, the government is continuously introducing draconian laws to curtail civil liberties, to derail the devolution of power and to compromise on the truth and reconciliation process. Two, the ruling party has started to make it a rule to impose all major decisions on governing the country—from deciding the name and capital of the provinces, bills to be mooted and sanctioned by the parliament, budgetary priorities and corruption investigation. As such, the state institutions—including the constitutional organs—that are responsible for governance through the separation of power, transparency and accountability have already begun to appear redundant.
And, unfortunately enough, no countering force capable of retarding this ominous process seems to be present. Also, the alternation in political equation, thus also in the modus operandi, seems unlikely to materialise for the remaining tenure of the existing Parliament. If this trend continues, Nepal is all set to become a directed democracy in place of the liberal democracy until the next elections. This may ultimately lower people’s bar for what freedom means.
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