Restoration of multiparty democracyThe new round of political surprises can push forward political realignment.
In October 2017, while the rest of the country had quieted down for the Dashain holidays, two of the largest parties in Nepal were secretly cooking up a pact.
Their subsequent announcement, that they would merge after jointly contesting the elections for three levels of governments, created ripples in Nepal and abroad.
Their subsequent merger in May 2018 transformed Nepal's political landscape, generating a possibility that Nepal's communist parties, if they remained united, would continue to dominate Nepal's governments for decades to come.
The merger of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) and the CPN-UML was bad news for Nepali Congress and to all those who had worked hard to prevent the rise of communists in Nepal. In fact, it was bad news for the idea of multi-party democracy itself.
The new round of political surprises in recent months has the potential to correct critical anomalies in Nepali democracy. In fact, they are tantamount to the restoration of multiparty democracy in Nepal.
A new round of surprises
The first implosion came on December 20 last year when a prime minister holding a near two-thirds majority dissolved the House, saying he was facing obstacles from within his own party. The move created a de facto division in the party, forcing UML stalwarts like Madhav Kumar Nepal to side with Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
Now we have another momentous implosion, this time engineered by the Supreme Court. The Court issued a mandamus on Sunday invalidating the Election Commission's decisions to register and recognise the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). The SC said that with the invalidation of the two EC decisions, the CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre) would remain as two separate parties; if they want to be unified they should follow the due legal process in the Election Commission.
The Supreme Court's verdict, which came on the day the House reconvened, has sent another round of shockwaves creating a swirl of confusion and uncertainty regarding the fate of new political alliances, the status of members of Parliament and the government.
Many of the senior Maoist leaders believe that if the SC decision stands and the merger is invalidated, a future merger between the former UML and the Maoists would be extremely unlikely. It would lead to a regrouping of the former two parties, with Madhav Kumar Nepal once again becoming a minority leader in the former UML.
Flawed from the beginning
The series of events in the past few months were not sudden, they were natural outcomes of processes in the past.
The merger process was half-baked and facilitated by actors who wanted to see a communist stronghold in Nepal. A host of issues in the party remained unresolved from the start, with political leaders more focused on ad hoc political settlements that served their interests.
Despite working relations in the past and ideological affinity, significant differences existed. These differences ranged from issues of post-conflict transitional justice to corruption, differences of power-sharing agreements at the top level, their self-centred working style, the existence of at least eight modular groups, and international strains.
A majority of Maoists were also dissatisfied with the way their top leaders surrendered the issue of the rights of marginalised groups and communities.
The political parties, as well as the Election Commission, failed to respect due democratic norms and legal processes. The EC is to be singularly blamed for this state of affairs. The fault lies primarily with the Election Commission, which was unable to follow legal principles in the face of political pressure. It was known at the time that the Election Commission had clearly violated legal principles while recognising the new party.
Nepal's political parties are marred by a culture dominated by individual personalities and vested interests, that frequently undermine rule of law and democratic values. This time, it came to haunt the leaders themselves who have been enjoying impunity.
Restoring the multi-party system
The split in the NCP can make Nepal's political landscape more competitive.
A central principle of multiparty democracy is political competition. As Schattschneider famously put it, ‘modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties.’ For a political system to be democratic, there should be genuine political competition, and for there to be genuine competition, there should be at least two parties with ‘reasonable chances of electoral success.’
However, the merger of the communist parties had effectively wiped out this central component of multiparty democracy. For example, the NCP alliance held a 175 member majority in the 275 member House of Representatives and a two-thirds majority in five of the seven provinces. For the House of Representatives elections, the two parties received a total of 49 percent of proportional representation votes.
Their voter base would have increased in the future because a ruling party in Nepal can easily expand its base, especially when the so-called democratic party, the Nepali Congress, is shackled by self-centred and weak leadership.
A related process was the trend of subversion of democracy by democratically elected leaders gradually through legislative and constitutional changes (from within the democratic system). Over time, the communist party would have had complete political control over other branches, particularly the legislative and the judiciary.
This trend in Nepal is not an anomaly. According to Milan Svolik, from 1973 to 2018, there were a total of 197 democratic breakdowns and 88 of them were through executive takeovers by democratically elected incumbents.
Political realignment allows democracy to function in more efficient ways. Political realignments can make it easier for citizens to vote according to their interests by offering ideologically distinct options. It also allows parties to aggregate voters interests and creates trusted emotional linkages with the groups they represent.
The darker part of political division, however, is the conflict of interests among the top leadership and the possibility that they can allow more space for geo-strategic interests. Unless democratic processes take hold soon, both inside and outside the party, political flux can harm Nepal's national interests.