Subverting political federalismThe coalition culture has sidelined deserving candidates in favour of cronies and sycophants.
The nomination process for the first-past-the-post (FPTP) elections to the federal and provincial legislatures, in total 165 and 330 constituencies, respectively, concluded on October 9. Two grand political alliances of the ruling and opposition parties struggled until the last hours to finalise the nomination of candidates to contest the elections slated for November 20. The ruling electoral alliance now comprises the Nepali Congress, CPN (Maoist Centre), CPN (United Socialist), Democratic Socialist Party and Samyukta Jana Morcha. At the same time, the main opposition party the CPN-UML, amidst a last-minute high drama, created an electoral alliance mainly with Janata Samajbadi Party that is yet to pull out of the five-party coalition government and two factions of the pro-royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party.
First, agreeing on a seat-sharing arrangement with the chosen partners and then the process of "picking" the candidates were apparently painstakingly challenging for the leadership of all parties. Or, perhaps, the party leadership wanted to make the process non-transparent and clumsy to keep the candidates at their mercy. The party leadership at the centre, in each party without exception, has played the role of a messiah to the aspirants by exercising full discretionary authority in choosing and picking their favourites, and also, in blatantly penalising the detractors within their outfits. The party leaders, as demigods, indiscriminately decided who would be the candidates without setting any norm, criteria or parameter. The coalition culture has sidelined the more deserving ones in favour of cronies and sycophants.
Despite this, national attention seemed to be obsessively overwhelmed by who would actually win the party ticket to contest the elections. What is ominously missing is a debate on whether the all-powerful leaders in the parties have turned these organisations into political fiefdoms while discarding the norms of in-party democracy and upholding the practices of the federal system while selecting these candidates.
These are not exemplary signals for the future of democracy and federalism. To take a short theoretical detour, the federal polity can be operationalised, stabilised, and in due course, institutionalised only if it can ensure real devolution of power in political decision-making. Several theorists of federalism are in consensus that simultaneous functionality and complementarity of the four pillars, namely political federalism, constitutional federalism, fiscal federalism and administrative federalism, are inevitable to make any federal economy growth-oriented and welfare-enhancing. The political federalism into which this write-up will largely delve into is, ipso facto, a precondition for federalism to ultimately function smoothly and succeed. The existence of political pluralism in terms of the existence of a multitude of political organisations and the exercise of intra-party democracy in each of them is unequivocal for the federal system to continue, if not flourish.
In Nepal's case, the three major political parties—Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Centre)—have by now aligned their respective organisational skeletons parallel to the state's three-tiered federal architecture. But the candidate selection process this time, once again, has exposed that the political decision-making authority has barely percolated through this structure to even the provincial levels, let alone the local levels. The provincial committees of the parties could not decide even a single candidate contest in their jurisdiction. The central leadership of these parties largely trashed the recommendations made by the constituency-level committees in favour of a particular candidate. CPN-UML chairman KP Oli is alleged to have been most intolerant against those party colleagues who failed to prove unflinching personal loyalty to him. The leadership is becoming increasingly centralist and dictatorial in the absence of internal democracy in all major "national" parties. The regional parties, mainly a couple that have a presence in the Tarai-Madhesh of the southern plains, aren't acting any differently. This is entirely antithetical to the core of federal democracy.
Broader representation in the legislatures is a prerequisite to political federalism. It is not difficult to foresee that if the authority to select candidates to the legislative elections is completely decentralised, not only will democracy thrive, but federalism will also take much required root. For example, if the candidacy is decided based on a fully democratic and transparent process by picking the one winning the majority vote of the party members of the constituency concerned, the local committees get immensely empowered, and a rule-based system replaces the current ad-hocism.
The constitution has made two distinct arrangements, a proportional electoral system and a bicameral federal Parliament, to ensure better representation of those segments of society most unlikely to be elected in the FPTP or direct elections. Both these constitutional expectations have been deliberately and severely thwarted right since the inception of the concept. The top slots in the list for proportional representation submitted to the Election Commission, by all parties alike and in all categories, from women and Dalits to ethnic groups, have been effectively hijacked by overexposed powerful politicians, affluent elites and relatives and henchmen of party bigwigs.
Even in fielding candidates, women candidates make up only 9 percent of about 6,000 contestants for a total of 395 legislative seats. Similarly, the number of Dalit candidates picked by the major political parties for direct elections is close to nil. However, women and Dalits constitute 51 and 14 percent of the country's total population, respectively. The saga of the National Assembly, the 59-member upper chamber of the federal Parliament, is no different. The rationale of the upper house, as per the constitutional spirit, is to bring in personalities from diverse fields and expertise who have made a significant contribution to the nation but are unlikely to fight direct elections. But the House has been misused by the parties to accommodate "influential figures" often proven irritants to the party leadership. Many leaders of mainstream politics have used it as a springboard to an active political career.
There is clearly a mala fide intention of deliberately violating the spirit of the constitution to exploit the letter to serve the acute self-interests of the leaders, which has, for all practical purposes, castrated political federalism. This puts the entire federal edifice at risk of collapse.