Democracy in perilNepal is witnessing a systematic erosion of democratic values at the hands of the leaders who are democratically elected
It is sad to note that even after seven decades of democratic struggles and promulgation of an inclusive federal democratic republic constitution through an elected Constituent Assembly (CA), Nepal is not out of the woods yet.
The People’s Movement conluded in 2006 with a ‘Comprehensive Peace Accord’ between the government and the rebels in line with the 12-point understanding reached between the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists in Delhi a year earlier. This paved the way for the safe landing of the Maoists into the national politics and formally ended the armed conflict that killed over 17,000 people, devastated national infrastructures and left the country traumatised. The core commitment of the path to transition was to establish democracy. However, the country is witnessing a systematic erosion of democratic values at the hands of leaders who are democratically elected and who always promise to fulfil people’s aspirations.
Amalgam of opportunists
At a time when the pressing priority of the day should have been the implementation of the recently promulgated constitution, the KP Oli government has chosen to ignore constitutional limits on its power. The government’s bypassing the constitutional provisions and showing a double standard has eroded the practices and principles of constitutionalism. Article 76 (9) of the constitution mandates the maximum of 25 ministers, including the prime minster and assistant ministers.
But the present prime minister flagrantly violated this by appointing a 41-member cabinet with a record number of six deputy prime ministers. A constitution can become just a piece of paper if not honoured honestly. The attitude of ‘you did it so I did it too’ cannot justify the action.
The current government has become an amalgam of rank opportunists who barely possess democratic credentials. It is trampling the fair, impartial, and competent judiciary by recommending the appointments of full time cadres of the leading parties to the position of Supreme Court judges. The UCPN (Maoist) chief has reportedly been complaining that the judiciary has remained an obstacle in their work. It was not long ago that the Appellate Court judges appointed during the earlier CPN-UML-led government chose to parade themselves at the party office immediately after being sworn in. How can neutrality be expected from such a judiciary that is in the making?
While the government is working to steadily cripple the powers and rights of state organs, an antidemocratic element masquerading as Naya Shakti (new force) is misleading the people. It may be recalled that not long ago, its convener Dr Baburam Bhattarai in an interview to the Washington Times on December 14, 2002 defended the Khmer Rouge genocide by saying that ‘there is no independent and authentic account of events in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge so far. Whatever is emanating from the Western media appears to be highly exaggerated to us.’
This shows that the extreme leftists and rightists are working in tandem to infringe democracy in the country from within and outside. The troubling part is that they are promoting the illusion of ultranationalism and democratic transformation to hold power in perpetuity. Rhetoric and jingoism stand as the order of the day to cover up the glaring failures on the governance front. The government’s partisan approach to the much-needed tasks of relief distribution, reconstruction and rehabilitation has compounded the sufferings and hardships of the earthquake victims and squandered international goodwill and support.
Concerted efforts are made to put blame on democracy and its functioning for the leaders’ failings and their insatiable appetite for unbridled power. They are defaming and discrediting democracy by casting a shadow on democratic governance as they chose to preside over the record-breaking black marketeering and widespread corruption, and helplessly watched the unspeakable miseries and hardships faced by the people. Such actions have alienated the public. Excessive politicking has bypassed development activities completely.
Democracy comes with the rule of law, separation of powers and protection of individuals’ rights and liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. These constitute the core of human rights and dignity. Institutional checks and balances ensure stability in democracy. The duty of the government is to protect that function without discrimination and double standards.
Nepal did away with the privilege of divine powers to rule. Despite two CA elections in succession, the democratisation process in the country could not be accompanied by democratic institutions due to the leaders’ behaviours. After all, elections are not the be-all and end-all of democracy. Democracy is a gradual and long-term process that goes much beyond elections. The process needs to promote ‘watchdogs’, ‘guide dogs’, and ‘barking dogs’ in the form of credible institutions. Democracy is the process of renewal and refurbishment. Post-election phase demands tolerance and mutual respect.
While an institutionalised democracy is the most stable form of governance, it remains among the most fragile in the beginning. It needs creative, constructive, and visionary leaders to stregthen it. The democratic governance that only promises and plays on the rhetoric does not perform and deliver, and thus becomes vulnerable from within.
Democracy is not a privilege; it is a prerequisite for Nepal. Merely saying that history is on the side of democracy is not enough. Honest efforts are needed to intitutionalise democracy if we desire to live with dignity, decency, inclusiveness and lasting development.
Democrats of the country have a heavy duty before them. They should convince the citizens to trust their future in a democratic Nepal and that democracy and democracy alone will provide the foundation for national unity and reconciliation.
There is a need to educate citizens about transformative elements of Nepal’s constitution that grant and guarantee fundamental rights to all its citizens, and ensure not the power of the majority but that of the minorities through proportionate inclusion. It is time to convince citizens that the country is on an irreversible and unstoppable democratic path capable of reconciling the competing aspirations of the people in a diverse Nepal. The democrats also have the responsibility to convince the citizens about the capability of democracy with regard to development.
Nepal’s strength is its resilient people. As poor governance and fragile institutions have failed to deliver on the government’s promises, foreign forces are getting stronger. National political forces are weak and have no capacity to monitor outsiders’ activities. There is a tendency to look to foreign hands even for small things. This makes the Nepali ground fertile for conspiratorial politics due to sensitive and fragile geopolitics.
In 1979, BP Koirala said, ‘If Nepal has to exist as a nation or develop as a nation, it must also develop democratic institutions.’ It is time to recommit ourselves to a more inclusive democracy and social justice. Democracy will alone create opportunities for young people, deliver peace and stability for much-needed development and enhance the country’s dignity abroad. Nepal’s best days are ahead if we can institutionalise democracy at home and make a mark in the comity of democratic nations. It is time to make democracy safe for Nepal.
Bhattarai is a former ambassador and foreign affairs adviser to Sushil Koirala