Making our democracy workThe thing to do is rein in political corruption and depoliticise public institutions.
Until three years ago, our politicians blamed the coalition governments that preceded the 2017 parliamentary election for all of Nepal’s ills. They told us a one-party majority government would bring stability and prosperity to the country. The people believed them; in 2017, they elected a hurriedly formed communist alliance, which later became the Nepal Communist Party, with an overwhelming majority. KP Sharma Oli became prime minister. But the hope and optimism set off by the new one-party majority government did not last very long. After a lull of about two years, Oli’s opponents in the Nepal Communist Party, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, started demanding his resignation either as prime minister or as chairman of the party. The conflict got so intense, Oli claimed that it ‘became impossible’ for him ‘to do his job’.
On December 20, Oli dissolved Parliament to avert a no-confidence vote against him and to hang on to power. On February 20, the Supreme Court determined his action unconstitutional and ordered a recall of the House. Without the support of the Dahal faction, the Oli government will either fall or be in the minority. The new government is bound to be either a multi-party coalition or a single-party minority government. Since Nepal has little history of a single-party minority government, it is likely to be a coalition government. Horse trading for coalition partners by both pro- and anti-Oli camps has already begun. Are coalition governments inherently unstable? Why do they not work in Nepal? What could we do to make them work?
Coalition governments are not inherently unstable; it is a myth created by our politicians. The performance of a coalition government depends on the attitude and priorities of the partners. When the leaders are committed to people’s work, the coalition government works. When their priorities lie elsewhere, it does not.
The majority of governments in Western Europe are a coalition. Take the example of Germany. Since World War II, Germany has had a single-party parliamentary majority rule only once. All the rest have been coalitions. Angela Merkel’s fourth coalition government is currently in power. She has been chancellor since 2005. The fact that Germany is one of the most prosperous democracies in the world proves coalition governments deliver. If coalition governments did not work, European democracy would collapse.
The coalition government under Manmohan Singh, credited with India’s economic stride, lasted 10 years. Israel has had coalition governments since its beginning. Benjamin Netanyahu has been in power for over 10 years as the head of several coalition governments. Suffice to say, coalition governments are stable and productive when the focus of the partners is not using the alliance for their personal or partisan benefit.
Elsewhere, the coalition partners enter into a formal agreement that includes their target policies and programmes. The agreement is made public, and the government follows it. In Nepal, the agreement amongst coalition partners is never made public. However, an observation of the performance of the government, and the sequence of events that eventually lead to the unravelling of the coalition, provide enough insight into the priorities of the parties in the coalition. Policy and programmes are not one of them. Sharing the spoils of power and the apportionment of plum cabinet and government posts amongst the loyalists of the coalition parties’ leaders seem to dominate the pre-coalition negotiations and the coalition’s agenda. It does not change even when a single-party government is formed.
Coalitions fall when one of the partners is perceived to run afoul of the deal made during the negotiations. The Nepal Communist Party’s civil war, which culminated in Oli’s dissolution of Parliament, started when it became apparent to Dahal that Oli was going to renege on the commitment he had made to him before assuming office. No one, even the senior leaders of the party, knew that Oli had secretly agreed to step down and hand over the prime ministership after two and a half years. Dahal leaked the agreement when he sensed Oli was unlikely to honour it, and then all hell broke loose.
Making our democracy work
Cynics will say nothing—neither a coalition nor a single-party majority government—works in Nepal. But we have no option other than to make our democracy and the governments that come with it work. Multi-party liberal democracy is the governing system we have chosen after decades of fighting the Panchayat dictatorship and Maoist insurgency. The question is: How do we make it work? A pre-requisite for a democracy to be successful is that the people must trust their political leaders and public institutions. The Nepali people trust neither. The current corps of political leaders are regarded as self-serving, two-faced hypocrites. Public institutions are seen as partisan tools of politicians rather than independent, non-partisan authorities.
The ideal way to build trust would be for the new government to rein in political corruption and depoliticise public institutions. Ideally, the government is led by a younger leader—bold, ethical and visionary with an understanding of the aspirations of the younger generation and commitment to deliver. That is unlikely to happen as all major political parties are controlled by the old, failed leaders of yesterday. They are not going to hand over power to the younger generation. And the younger generation is unlikely to rise to the top unless internal democracy within political parties is expanded.
For the time being, the country will have to live with one of the old leaders—Deuba, Oli, Nepal or Dahal—as the head of the new coalition. Civil society and the media have a major role in making the new coalition work for the people. They played a major role in exposing Oli’s egregious act of dissolving Parliament as they did in forcing the Oli administration to withdraw the faulty Guthi Bill. They should launch a campaign to pass a law requiring the new coalition partners to declare the terms of their agreement, and keep a vigil on the workings of the alliance. The campaign inside political parties for the expansion of internal democracy needs to be intensified.