The beauty of democracy lies in the legitimate space for opposition and recognition of its role as a shadow government or a government in waiting. As a responsive rule, it refuses the tyranny of majority and separation of rule from the living condition of people, a source of demand formation. The opposition political parties’ principle roles are to question the government of the ruling party, debate its bills and laws and make it accountable to the public. It sets both democratic dynamics by offering different policy perspectives, observing constitutional behaviour of the government, converting the genuine grievances of people into legitimate policy and constituting a safety valve to release those grievances through peaceful channels.
This role of opposition is important to protect democracy from the sudden explosion of popular outbursts like in undemocratic regimes. People pin hope on the opposition party if the government underperforms. It thus confines party competition and their activities within the reasonable scale of constitutional and political boundaries and defends the sanctity and integrity of public purpose of politics from the forays of non-political, anti-political and geopolitical challenges.
If power bloc politics created by the establishment persists and the space for opposition remains empty either by the willing consent of opposition, share of power by any means or collusion for leadership interest, democracy turns less flashing. Nepali politics for long faced such scenarios, gyrating opposition parties to restlessness, not competitive prompting both sides — the government and opposition — chose politics over Nepali people. In the process, it has torn off the safety valve of democracy. As a result, the nation’s sprawling opposition forces have taken various twists and turns -- parliamentary, extra-parliamentary, extra-constitutional, anti-systemic and revolutionary thus compromising the tenure of each government far from fulfilling its life.
Democratisation of internal life of parties and opposition remains as a policy challenge in Nepal. Like the layering of Nepali society, the political spectrum of parties is also pyramidal and, therefore, not all political parties of the nation are fully conformist to the basic values and spirit of the constitution. So long as the programmes of the ruling parties, conduct of oppositional leaders and spirit of people do not synchronise with the principles of constitutionalism, sadistic will show no sign of losing its grip and free-riding as a legitimate tool of politics for haggling for power will continue.
In this sense, if Nepali parties do not accept defeat in the election and perform general functions attached to them, opposition of various sorts will continue and political stability, good governance and sustainable progress remain a chimera. The parliamentary democracy has traditionally two sides of politics — the incumbent party representing the majority of population and the vibrant opposition monitoring the government’s policies and programmes, placing checks on its propensity to use arbitrary power, raising issues of general public concerns and representing the voices of the voiceless.
Proportional election system, heterogeneity of party spectrum and diversity of population rolling in asymmetry of power continue to drive Nepali politics away from the binary code of politics. As a result, parliamentary opposition for long has lost its enthusiasm. Most of the time opposition parties seemed either cohabitated into governmental power or self-alienated turning disloyal thus more agitational or revolutionary and raised demands beyond the capacity of the government to fulfil. Both the constitutional oath-takers and unfaithful political parties often sought to discredit the government and the system regarding the settlement of issues raised by them inside the parliament.
One obvious reason is the incubation of machine politics that gave birth to street agitations of all subsidiary forces, the other is the declining interest of the government to participate in the deliberation of the various committees of the parliament to listen to legitimate demands and settle them one by one and still the other is the birth of anti-establishment feeling in the population and their cynicism which is expressed in voting behaviour. One may argue the continuous governmentalisation of all positions and resources of the state by ruling party or parties and their distribution to clients for the expansion of political constituency has created a disincentive for the political party to stay in opposition, perform its roles of due diligence and not lose passion until next elections provide possibility to change the government.
The extra-constitutional politics has deeper roots and most of the leaders of older generations were socialised in this kind of oppositional politics. When they rose to power they habitually acted like authoritarian leaders in an extra-constitutional manner stifling the spirit of constitution and laws. This has inspired other political forces to follow suit. The Supreme Court has to issue verdicts on many issues against both the parliament and the executive and rectify their decisions. Civic activism has also added support to the court verdicts. Extra-parliamentary opposition also arose from those who did not have faith in parliamentary politics that it can solve the problems faced by the nation and people and set the nation in a rational direction.
Social movement groups, formation of caucus groups across the party lines, civil society activism lacking a sense of charity, human rights bodies, professional associations, etc. have given impetus to extra-parliamentary opposition in Nepal. These groups are constituted to struggle for the settlement of many political issues such as transitional justice, proportional representation of various groups in governance, distributional struggle of under-classes of society, rights realisation, justice and identity recognition.
Janata Samajbadi Party, for example demands multi-national state, Loktantrik Samajbadi Party is demanding citizenship rights, CPN-Maoist Centre Presidential form of government and some small parties have their party-specific grievances of ending bureaucratic inertia that evolved into a byzantine mode of performance or combating the virus of kleptocracy or impunity. The extra-systemic opposition is fostered by those parties who do not have any faith in the parliamentary system of governance. Small communist parties led by Netra Bikram Chand 'Biplav', Mohan Baidya ‘Kiran’, Dharmendra Bastola, Hemanta Oli and Kadga Bishwakarma having fissiparous tendency and intermittent fusion harbour revolutionary dream of establishing people’s republic, do not participate in elections and occasionally organise strikes and demonstration to display their political clout.
The successful political movements of Nepali Congress (NC) and Praja Parishad in the forties, NC and United Left Front in the early nineties and seven parliamentary parties and CPN (Maoist) in 2005 have shown the pathways to change politics through extra-constitutional oppositional means. Inability of these parties to consolidate political parties, democracy, the institutional structure and political culture, however, keep on inspiring many regional parties to resort to extra-constitutional opposition to vouch for their demands being fulfilled. Nepal has witnessed the surge of revolutionary opposition in the various phases of its history which sought structural change of the public sphere and allowed the voice of the oppressed for some time.
The latest declaration of Nepal inclusive, secular, federal and democratic republic is a revolutionary leap but it did not change the political culture of leadership. It has, therefore, inspired public pessimism and birth of new parties of various hues though most of them are sharing power now. Others are setting preconditions to share power. Like the previous revolutionary changes, the consolidation of the latest one is also doddering, forcing Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda to speak of “last opportunity for politicians to perform.” He expressed his commitment to enable people to feel good governance, regenerate economic progress, justice, service delivery and even cultural protection. He instructed the secretaries of various ministries to produce result-oriented outcomes.
His interest in the formation of national government has been prompted by three considerations: gravity of national situation especially anaemic economy, capriciousness of new swing in coalition politics risking political instability, keep option open with Nepali Congress which favoured him in the vote of confidence in the parliament and possibility of over pressure by CPN-UML chair KP Sharma Oli who justified the dissolution of parliament twice which the previous five-party coalition led by NC detested. Many argue that NC’s sharing of power leave the nation without opposition and cause the deterioration of democratic norms and practice while NC says it will stay in opposition but defends that the election of its presidential candidate will prevent democracy’s reversal while UML prefers to have both President and Speaker.
Given the transactional nature of Nepali leadership, it is easy to say politics can lead to any turn in the future. Weak opposition cannot protect the resilience of democracy and its irreversibility. Yet, the fundamentalist gap in politics between the government and opposition can instrumentalise the cultural differences of the nation and symbols of nationalism and democracy, not pivot to reconciliation for nation-building. Political culture of democracy requires mutual tolerance and respect and value consensus on the constitutional provisions as well as vital foreign policy interests of the nation. The latter requires cooperation of the government and opposition. So does in matters of promoting public good.
The other elements that help opposition effervescent are: independent court, negative rights of Nepalis enshrined in the constitution, civil society and media, public intellectuals as critical mass to pose critique of power, wealth, dominant institutions and authorities, power checks in the polity and international community often acting as deterrent against the erosion of democracy, human rights, social justice and peace. The last one has become less effective now for geopolitical reasons. In this sense, institutionalisation of the space of opposition is non-negotiable. It is vital to prevent the emergence of a syndicated regime, vulnerability of democracy to populism of the left and the right and enable it to pursue a system of oversight, accountability and institutional maturity.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)