Monday, 6 December, 2021

Elusive Democratic Stability

Dev Raj Dahal

The Nepali political establishment was successful in crippling the stability of what it calls feudal order but failed to spur democratic stability, keep the integrity and accountability of institutional equilibrium of power and nurture the responsive efficacy of public institutions of governance. In a suffocating political milieu, ordinary Nepalis sense a deep feeling of insecurity, powerlessness and actual condition of their existence. So long as Nepali leaders cannot escape from their insatiable human nature which turned them into habit-driven, it is difficult to create a democratic polity capable of operating under constitutional mandate compatible with the spirit of modern times and rights and aspirations of citizens.
Nepali politics is now stumbling relentlessly toward fragmentation and uncertainty marred by clash of interests among the fractious groups of various political parties led by powerful leaders. Their bitter scramble for power and their hysterical self-righteousness infected the division of vertical structure of parties affecting many aspects of nation’s life. The self-immolation of ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) is eased by the recent two verdicts of the Supreme Court - the first verdict has restored the House of Representatives dissolved by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli considering his step for a fresh mandate unconstitutional while the second verdict has derecognised the unification of former CPN-UML and CPN - Maoist Centre as the name NCP has been duly registered by Rishi Kattel at the Election Commission (EC) before co-chair Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda registered their unified party in 2018.

EC credibility
Both the verdicts indicate the abuse of rule of law by powerful leaders. Now, opposition forces are cobbled together to foil the ordinance on the duty, rights and work procedures of Constitutional Council tabled by the government three months ago even opposing what they call “extra-constitutional appointment” without public hearing in the parliament which was then already dissolved.   Both Oli and Prachanda accepted the court’s verdict and showed eagerness to stick to their parties’ old names.  One good point with the verdict is that it smashed big parties’ tendency to belittle the existence of small parties by undue pressure on the EC and trespassing the Act relating to Political Parties 2073 and Rules 2074. It also questioned the EC’s credibility as being less fair for the reason of recruitment of commissioners on the basis of partisan ground and functioning less impartially.
The second verdict shifted political equation within CPN-UML in favour of Oli against his rivals - Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal who had earlier joined Prachanda to topple him down but now they are back to their mother party and engaged in a struggle for party reforms from within and leap it in a fresh way without disrupting the party committees, eroding the trust of citizens and managing the torrent of resentments grinding the writ of democracy. Yet five ministers from the Maoist-Centre’s quota stayed in the government and stitched to UML. Speculation is rife that they are trying to split their mother party to lend support to the government.
In the legislative spectrum, Prime Minister Oli has higher number of legislators and is the largest party. Yet, he falls short of legislators required to give continuity to his government.  Either he has to perpetuate support from the Maoist-Centre as suggested by Madhav Kumar Nepal to keep the left government intact, or form a coalition with Nepali Congress or Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP). These parties are also faction-ridden with conflicting tendencies. NC President Sher Bahadur  Deuba has expressed his interest to become the Prime Minister while JSP is negotiating with the government on their conditions to join the government: release of its legislator Resham Chaudhary, many cadres detained during Madhesh and Tharuhat stirs and amendment of the constitution to relax citizenship provisions. The government is positive on all except the last one which requires the cooperation of other parties.
It is unlikely as Maoist-Centre and NC view that their common motive is to expand electoral constituency by weakening the former. Cornered Dahal is issuing heated diatribes against the Prime Minister without withdrawing his support to the government and has been engaged in parleys with the NC and JSP to open a possibility of a new regime. These parties had earlier asked Prime Minister Oli to resign on moral ground without offering alternative programmes about the common good and showing practical wisdom, better virtue and ability to govern. JSP and Maoist-Centre fear the government’s strategy to split the party and muster one faction’s support to stay in power. Mutual betrayal of each other, fraud and deception in the past has yet to be mended for trust building and reshaping governmental leadership and fixing electoral volatility.
The SC’s second verdict has fragmented the popular mandate of left forces, melted left-right polarisation and increased the centrality of non-left forces in shaping the government or creating environment for mid-term elections. Some lawyers view that the SC has entered into the domain of politics and the EC which might weaken the autonomy of constitutional organs. They argue that the petitioner Rishi Kattel, for example, had not demanded the SC to quash the unification of two big left parties. Lawyers close to Prachanda and Nepal think that this verdict has contravened the former verdict of constitutional bench and overstepped its prerogative.  They are thinking to file case in the court seeking judicial review as the first verdict has recognised the existence of NCP as the dominant party. The political implication of the second verdict is that it has bungled the party identification of many elected representatives following the unification of NCP in the National Assembly, provinces and local bodies.
Likewise, by means of legal quibbling in favour of small parties without any representation at multi-level governance it has undermined the status of dominant national party thus causing party fragmentation, political instability and policy paralysis. Four national parties have been recognised with national status - CPN-UML with 120 legislators, Maoist-Centre 53, Nepali Congress 63 with two suspended and Janata Samajbadi Dal 34 with 2 suspended on criminal charges. Yet, political dysfunctionality is attributed to their culture of clientalism and defence of privileges over public service and generating the crisis for democracy. The earlier protest against the dissolution of House had set common background condition for Maoist-Centre, NC and JSP and civil society.
Now the three parties are engaged in the parliament and cross-party parleys for the formation of an uneasy coalition government, the nation’s counter-elites represented by civil society, NGOs, social movements and attentive citizen groups are still in the streets fighting against partiocracy, social ills and procrastination of transitional justice. Unhappy voters are wondering what has really changed under the flag of democracy. The catch-all character of Nepali parties and their structures reflect what Kay Lawson and Mildred A. Schwartz calls “stratarchy,” with decision powers vesting in the hands of a few leaders at each layer of the party committee. This is precisely the reason they have not been able to aggregate the interests of ordinary citizens into concrete programmes for responsible governance. 
The solution of fractious politics in Nepal lies in living faithfully to democratic principles, seeking deliberative and inclusive process in the organisational life of parties, defining relationship based on mutual trust within and across leadership beyond winner and loser or majority and minority and foster public good so that the public holds stake in democracy and defends it.  Justification of public good is the leitmotif of democratic politics. Democracy is not a leadership game to sacrifice rivals for the interest of self which amounts to  its winner-takes-all nature and reduces citizens into a mere spectator, not active, enlightened and engaged one capable of self-determination and self-rule entitled by popular sovereignty.
Nepal is practicing this type of politics as many citizens are seen passive supporters of one set of leaders or the other without questioning whether they stand for politics or partisan imperative by plunging the state institutions to downward spiral and creating security and authority vacuum. The latter category hardly strives for common good beyond sorting, craving and erosion of civic sensibility and accountability to the weaker part of the Nepali public. The frequent demonstration of muscular strength by Nepali political parties is what democratic society aims to prevent for it undermines the conscience and civility of citizens to coexist under a regime of legitimate, constitutional order. Democracy in no way means boundless majority rule or roiling politics around personality cult the nation is confronting now.

Personality conflict
The domination of personality conflict in Nepali party politics demonstrates the return of old politics of authoritarianism that devalues participatory impulses and the spirit of democracy in their inner life.  Without levelling the playing field for citizens at the grassroots level both in local party committees and its influence on higher up decision making level democracy cannot be consolidated. The diversity of Nepali society offers a rich tapestry of perspectives for the optimal solution of problems provided leaders are more reasonable and less monopolistic to each other and collectively serve public and national interests.
Nepal has endorsed universal declaration of human rights and, therefore, leaders are accountable to the protection of constitutional and human rights of citizens. Nepali polity is periodically monitored by the international community beyond holding of elections and creating authority. If Nepali democracy is demoralised by factionalism, corruption, chaos, pressure groups and middlemen, the spoilers, both national and geopolitical will find favourable environment to step in. To strengthen the spirit and commitment of citizens to democracy and a sense of political community, Nepali state must enforce shared sacrifice and mutual obligations. Only then the state can stop fragmentation of politics and animate its civilized roots.  

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)