Defining Contours Of Democracy

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The elections held in Nepal this Sunday indicate that actual democratic politics is a fierce, no-holds-barred competition for power. Political parties have fought tooth and nail to gain or retain hold on to the power to rule. It is yet too early to hazard a guess about the final winners or losers in the theatrics of political power played out in this electoral contest. New actors have burst on to the political melodrama. They have made their headways in the body politic of the country. The positive aspect of democracy is that it lets and unconditionally allows the new actors to enter into the contest for power and win the mandate of the people to secure the space to rule. In the electoral fight, established veterans of the political game may lose out to their rivals failing to repeat the winning streak. They will thus be compelled to reconcile to the destiny of defeat, loss and humiliation. 

Assertive rise

In Malaysia, the veteran politician who holds the credit of building Malaysia as a kind of prosperous society, Mohammed Mahathir lost the elections recently reportedly forfeiting his security deposit. It shows that those who are not in step with changes of the society may have to face humiliations no matter how glorious their past may be.  As vote counting is in progress in Nepal, it is not yet clear as to who among the political veterans will falter and lose the elections.  But as youths have made an assertive rise and sought their role in the political realm, it is likely that some of the elder players may be forced to vacate their space for incoming seekers of the political role in the competition. 

Elder and time-tested political gladiators like  Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, Maoist Supremo Pushpa  Kamal Dahal  Prachanda, former prime ministers and seasoned politicians like Jhala Nath Khanal, Madhav Nepal, KP Sharma Oli and many others are facing the tough contest and acrimonious challenge which is not easier to tackle as the poll fight has become multidimensional, multi-lineal and complex. The electoral battle this time is fought along a kind of bipartisan frame such as democracy vs. authoritarianism, young faces vs. old faces, corrupt vs. clean and so on. The ruling coalition of the parties led by Nepali Congress has accused the UML of allegedly practising authoritarianism referring to the dissolution of the parliament twice in succession in disrespect to the letter and spirit of the constitution. Nepali Congress has promised that it would never dissolve parliament. 

The UML leadership has been alleged to be hobnobbing with retrogressive forces to roll back the democratic achievements gained yet far. Likewise, UML has accused the existing ruling alliance of destroying all the vitals and ground norms of the democratic system and compromising on the national interest of the country. It shows that democracy itself is not just an unruly contest for power, but also the matter of an ongoing debate about what democracy is or should be. Of late, democracy is also defined and substantiated along the liberal and illiberal spectrum largely in the global context too. 

In fact, illiberal, populist visions have defined democracy as majority rule backing up a strong leader, while liberal definitions have long insisted that majority rule must be balanced by minority rights and democratic tendencies, culture and institutions. This argument has started playing a central role in partisan competition in the polls whether it be in Europe, the US or the South Asia. In the heat of partisan battles, it is a standard battle cry for one side to accuse the other of endangering democracy and norms of freedom. This was intensely played out in the last presidential polls in the US where Republican leader Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden had been pitted in an intense electoral battle. Trump was demonised as an illiberal and autocratic leader whereas Biden was portrayed as a weak liberal who will not be able to defend the national interest of the US.  

The US has such examples to be drawn from the past as well.  For the conservative Republicans during the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not democracy’s saviour, but a court-packing autocrat. The illiberal authoritarians of our day, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Edrogan,  for example, are not the first autocrats to claim they are democrats, and they will not be the last. In India too, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been portrayed as an authoritarian leader who is practising Hindu theology to rule the secular India. However, it is to be recognised that framing partisanship in the elections is not an abnormal rupture in democratic practice. But in fact, partisanship is the driver of all democratic competition.

Bipartisan debate

In the ongoing electoral battle, Nepalis should have become educated and aware of the substance of the bipartisan debate. It is not always true to theorise civility as the norm and competitive partisanship as a threatening posturing. This  gap  between what democracy is and what we wish it to be occurs, in part, because the democratic theory we understand, and the civics lessons we imbibe elevates democracy into an abstract realm of ideal types that is indifferent to the realpolitik and historical context. 

There is no such thing as democracy in a pure state. All actual democracies bear the contours of the historic struggles that gave them shape. A US political scientist writes: “Democracy is not a neutral procedural mechanism, whose meaning is ferociously contested by both sides.” In Nepal too, the electoral battles that we have organised  last week may help us to define the contours of democracy we really practice in our social and political economic context.

(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow.  rijalmukti@gmail.com)

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