Democracy on the edge

Published On: August 4, 2016 12:35 AM NPT By: Dinesh Bhattarai

Dinesh Bhattarai

Dinesh Bhattarai

Dinesh Bhattarai, former diplomat and foreign policy expert, has served as the foreign affairs adviser of former prime ministers Sher Bahadur Deuba and Sushil Koirala.

UML leaders, including outgoing PM, wanted to create constitutional complexities to prolong their stay in power
Change of government through votes is a beauty of democracy.  Nepal embraced parliamentary system under which the legislature elects its leader who is taken as a symbol of nation’s trust and confidence. K P Oli became the 38th Prime Minister of Nepal in October 2015 through the same democratic process.  

Oli’s dominant partner Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) fell out in nine months and filed a no confidence motion against him. While defending the no-confidence motion in the parliament last week Maoist leader Prachanda, who has been elected the new PM, had said: “Nine months ago we had supported KP Sharma Oli on the major condition of forging national unity and consensus but he ignored this condition. We found Oli’s working style ego-centric and self centric.”  He accused Oli of having reneged on understanding with him, sidelining the coalition partner and being “unwilling” to embrace the federal and republican set up. Referring to Oli’s deputies—Kamal Thapa, Chitra Bahadur KC and CP Mainali—Prachanda accused him of hobnobbing with the leaders who are opposed to fundamental precepts of new constitution—federalism, secularism and republicanism. Nepali Congress leader Bimalendra Nidhi said he supported Maoist leader because “PM Oli did not take any initiative to address the concerns of the agitating Madheshi parties although our party [Nepali Congress] tried its best to cooperate with the government in resolving those issues.”

UML did not let Parliament conduct its business without first taking up subsidiary bills related to the budget. It threatened to give a fitting reply if the speaker foisted the no-confidence motion. PM encouraged his cadres to demonstrate in the streets in his favor.  Partisan interpretation of constitutional clauses concerning the formation of new government also exposed how the ruling elites are sharply divided. It is unfortunate that elites do not stand united even on issues of national importance including national security and foreign policy.  

Oli’s protégé Subas Nembang, the longest serving House Speaker who presided over the promulgation of the constitution and who is one of the finest lawyers, boasted that the ‘confusing’ clauses under the transitional provisions had been “deliberately included.”  

UML leaders then propagated the need for broader understanding among parties that included understanding on budget endorsement, votes on no-trust motion, post-quake reconstruction, and implementation of the constitution and the pacts signed with India and China. It was clear that they wanted to create constitutional complexities to prolong their stay in the government. This is why they were focusing on the need to devise a clear cut political and constitutional roadmap. Oli argued that NC and Maoist leaders had no reason to topple his government other than jealousy against his performance. He accused them of standing against development and prosperity that the country so desperately needs. The change of government at this juncture, he argued, was detrimental to political stability when the country needed to implement the constitution. He said “the parties could not tolerate the agreements signed with India on revising the 1950 Nepal-India Treaty, to move the pending projects ahead and my stance to practice relations based on equality. They also did not like the trade and transit treaty signed with China to provide Nepal an alternative to its dependence on India. The agreement on connectivity with China also was intolerable.” Likewise, Minister of Information and Communications Sher Dhan Rai said the withdrawal of support to the government by the Maoists was a move at the behest of external forces, which were bent on stalling Chinese President’s visit.” They warned that no-confidence motion would lead the country towards failure. This reminds of Louis XIV of France who said L’etat c’est moi, “I am the State.”

After having realized that all possible routes to cling to power had been exhausted with the departure of coalition partners, PM announced his resignation responding to the questions raised against his government during the deliberations on no-confidence motion.  He used the “deliberately included confusion” in the constitution as a pretext to play politics on constitutional provisions. It seems he wanted to prove those who have termed the constitution as incomplete with a bundle of contradictions and ambiguities right. He led the cabinet to recommend to the President to invoke Article 305 to remove constitutional difficulties for the formation of new government, which leading parties and legal professionals have termed as “unnecessary and inappropriate.” They argued that the situation does not require removing difficulties for formation of new government under Article 298.

This posturing carries significant implications for democracy and Nepal’s political future. Oli’s government failed to read the writings on the wall. A pugnacious and polarizing Oli had created fault lines and exacerbated divides between Madheshis and Pahades. The ‘nationalist’ PM also unnecessarily dragged India and China into internal matters. However, they have not been provoked Oli’s rhetoric.  Both India and China have termed the recent developments in Nepal as ‘internal matter’ and assured full support to the new government.

The meltdown of newly created democratic institutions after the advent of democracy in 1990 started with the launching of so-called ‘People’s War’ against democracy. It got compounded with political parties’ fervent desire to fill with their cadres and sympathizers in the state apparatus.

In steady march for unrivaled power, UML encouraged NGOs/INGOs to work as the grassroots at the cost of national institutions. The recent elections to the civil service trade union mirror its infiltrations into the arteries of the state system. This all started with King Mahendra when he decimated the first ever elected government, and used the left elements to counter and dilute democratic forces in the country. Leo E Rose, who has written about Nepal extensively, said in 1990 “CPN-UML has emerged as the alternative to the Nepali Congress. It was until last year nominally illegal but in reality was permitted to function, whereas the Nepali Congress was not allowed to function in last 30 years the way the communists did. The communists were even given encouragement at times.”

In the 26 years of parliamentary democracy, UML has remained in power for 17 years.  UML leaders have struck alliance with anyone and everyone for power.  It even considered regression as half corrected to get to the corridors of power while rest of the democratic parties was struggling against the autocratic moves of the king.

A forensic analysis of past actions is needed to get rid of booby traps on democratic path and prevent electoral democracy from becoming an electoral autocracy. Democracy is sustained only if we build democratic institutions and honor the rule of law to guide our behavior. Problem with Nepal’s democracy is that petty party interests override fundamental democratic ideals that are expected to be preserved and protected.  

Political changes in Nepal have always been about the institutionalization of democracy. Thus it is our collective responsibility to work for strengthening and institutionalizing democracy for Nepal’s dignity and independence.  Will parties jockeying for power learn that pursuit of traditional security objectives takes precedence over promoting democracy and helping friends and neighbors? This was evident from the blockade at the Nepal-India border following the promulgation of an inclusive democratic constitution through an elected Constituent Assembly after seven decades of democratic struggles.
The author was Prime Minister Sushil Koirala’s foreign policy advisor

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