Our Troubled Democracy

Naresh Koirala | 24 January 2021
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Unless the bleeding of democracy stops, the restoration of the House alone is not going to save it.

Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli's dissolution of Parliament has yet again thrown Nepali politics into turmoil. Oli's critics, both within his party, the Nepal Communist Party, and the opposition parties in the House, have called the dissolution 'a brazen attack on democracy; on the constitution'. Oli argues that he has the right to dissolve Parliament and seek a new mandate at his choosing. He has called for elections in April and May 2021. 'I acted because my party prevented me from doing the people's work. In a democracy, there is nothing wrong in seeking a fresh mandate', he says.

At the time of this writing, the Supreme Court is considering the dispute on the legality of Oli's action. The sub judice status of the case notwithstanding, Oli's opponents are on the streets demanding the reinstatement of Parliament. 'Protect the constitution; protect democracy ', they cry. Oli's supporters are responding by asserting the legitimacy of his action.

Whether the Supreme Court orders the recall of Parliament or supports its termination, it is unlikely to stop the slow bleeding of our democracy, which has been going on for decades. The bleeding weakens democracy and creates a pathway for wannabe dictators and self-proclaimed messiahs of public good to grievously undermine it. Turkey, Hungary, Poland, what is happening in India and what happened in the United States with four years of Donald Trump prove the point.

Unless the bleeding stops, the restoration of the House alone is not going to save democracy. Who are the perpetrators? What is the way forward?

The bleeding

Under clause 50 (1) and clause 51.b.4 of the constitution, the state must 'strengthen a federal democratic republican system' and provide a 'public administration clean, competent, impartial, transparent, accountable...' Compliance with the letter and spirit of the constitution embodied in universally established democratic norms, conventions and ethics is critical for the stability of democracy and the maintenance of the people's trust. There can be no functioning democracy without the people's trust.

The trust deficit in our democracy is well known and huge. Very few people believe their government is working for them. Politicians are loathed all around because of the contradiction between their rhetoric, their maleficent activities and their lifestyle.

The primary agenda of the CPN-UML and the Maoist Centre alliance formed before the 2017 election was to win the election and capture the government. Once the alliance came to power, the two parties merged and formed the Nepal Communist Party. Looking back on the three years it has led the government, it would appear that the priority from the outset was to use its power to enrich its leaders and the party, and take absolute control of the government. Filling all public posts with party hacks would facilitate this. The people's work was secondary. In the three years since the Nepal Communist Party's ascent, the living conditions of its politicians have improved considerably, but the life of the common Nepali has hardly changed.

Until the recent eruption of the quarrel within the Nepal Communist Party, both Oli and, now his nemesis, the Nepal-Prachanda camp, worked in collusion. They wilfully ignored the spirit of the constitution. In the Nepal Communist Party government and the party, accountability became an irritation. Connections with party leaders became the primary qualification for appointments to the Cabinet, bureaucracy and constitutional bodies, not competence.

An ex-guerrilla, with no relevant experience or qualification, was made the minister of water supply; a person involved in dubious land transactions and with zero financial qualifications was made the finance minister; several persons with a well known corrupt past were, in succession, made the chief of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority; party leaders who had lost elections were brought into the legislative body by nomination; big business colluded with political leaders and everyone shared the spoils. I could go on and on!

The result has been unprecedented corruption; erosion of the checks and balances mechanism built in the constitution; and a total loss of the people's trust in the government, public institutions, and political leaders—in short, the bleeding of democracy. To be sure, all political parties and their leaders have been part of the bleeding. But it has never been as bad as under the Nepal Communist Party. It accelerated it many times over. So, what is the way forward?

The way forward

Oli's dissolution of Parliament was not a sudden meteoric strike on the constitution by an ambitious egotist. It had been in the making for a long time. It was fuelled by corruption, politicisation and incompetence, aided and abetted, until recently, primarily by the Nepal Communist Party's senior leaders now at loggerheads with Oli. Let us also not forget the complicity of leaders from other parties who silently let Oli's assault on the spirit of the constitution carry on.

The ongoing street demonstrations and attempt to influence court decisions, affirm the sorry state of our democracy. The protests are indicative of the people's loss of trust in the Supreme Court, the last and most powerful sentinel of democracy. The question now is what would the protesting political parties do if the court supports Oli's action? Demonstrate against the court? Not participate in the election? Both these options lead to democracy's dark alley. Protesting against the court will destabilise the country for a long time. Participating in the election will be acquiescence to Oli's assault on the constitution.

What if the court orders the restoration of Parliament? Then we will have a minority government led by Oli's nemesis, Pushpa Kamal Dahal or the leader of the Nepali Congress, Sher Bahadur Deuba. They have both actively participated over the years in the debasement of democracy by ignoring its norms and conventions, and allegedly used their authority for personal gain. To assume they will work to strengthen democracy and stop the bleeding is hoping against hope. The only option available is to accept the ruling of the Supreme Court, and to stop the bleeding, for the younger leaders in all major parties to unite to take over the leadership from the stranglehold of the old. Until that happens, speak out loud and clear when the leaders violate the constitution, both in letter and spirit.

Naresh Koirala is a geotechnical consultant in Vancouver, Canada.

This article was originally published on The Kathmandu Post.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.