If President Bhandari had downplayed her party affiliation, revisited the list of her duties as a President and sought counsel, instead of rushing to satisfy Oli, she could have reached a different conclusion.
The President of the United States is the subject of great interest to many in politics at present. He was the subject of interest before too but after he lured his base of violent White Supremacists into DC with a plan to disrupt the certification of electoral college, which went a little too far, even for some of the Republican Senators who were exactly on the same page with him until the violent insurrection of January 6, he has captured the news bulletins of the entire world.
You probably cannot describe in words the terror caused by a thug President trying to grab power unleashing his White Supremacist thugs on Congress. It is nothing but attempted coup poorly planned. These White Supremacists breached all the barriers and trashed the Capitol without getting shot because they were White. If these were black protesters, you would have counted dead bodies at the altar of the Congress. But, the structural racism built in the system is the conversation for next time. Today, I want to focus on authoritarianism and how it decomposes democracy slowly till it is ready for three strikes. If you have an authoritarian leader that you put in power, the three strikes could look pretty bizarre.
I was impatient on January 6. Not because I was worried that Trump would be able to steal the election and Congress would fail to certify the 306 electoral votes Biden received but because it was the day for America to pump fresh breath of life into the simple words of the constitution. I wanted to see how many Senators would deny pumping that fresh breath into those words that were keeping American democracy alive for two and half centuries. It was the day I knew Trump would try his best to strike and destabilize the democracy.
The warning signals
The rise of Trump was a surprise to many, but not to some political scientists who had correctly predicted the rise of authoritarianism in America. Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler had concluded in Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics in 2009 that Republican Party attracted many Americans with latent authoritative tendency by touting itself as “the party of law and order.” Six years down the road two Harvard political scientists, Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, analyzing the democratic upheaval of dozens of countries, basically justified the prediction made in 2009 with the four markers of authoritative leader neatly fitting Trump.
Trump, they argued, like all the authoritarian leaders, “rejects, in words and in action the democratic rules of the game, denies the legitimacy of opponents, tolerates or encourages violence, indicates the willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media”. By the end of Trump’s four years in power all the above markers of authoritarianism are crystal clear in visuals in front of the entire world.
But was that surprising? No. You just have to go through some of the horrific things Trump did in the past four years. Snatching toddlers from their mothers' bosoms to implement a Muslim ban, everywhere he showed that he can be cruel and heartless. But we were silent, mostly because all others were. That led Trump to continuously push the boundary. He has done so much of damage to the democratic values in the US and the world that experts are suggesting that it could take a decade or more to undo those damages. You can read The List by Amy Siskind who has kept a weekly list of Trump terror and has documented how Trump slowly but steady kept on undermining the rule of law and kept chewing the democratic values prior to the final violent strike he made on the constitution.
Republicans failed to stick together. Trump Republicans might take Republican Party hostage for now. But if that continued Republican Party could be following on the footsteps of the Whig Party that crumbled in 1854 after the Pro-Slavery Whigs, Southerners, collided with the Anti-Slavery Northerners.
The current Republican Party was born out of its ashes but the party might not erase themselves from the face of earth like the Whigs did, but if you look at the development after January 6, they have and will continue to pay the price for enabling White supremacists like Trump. The pro-democratic Republicans finally have grown their backbones and are standing against the anti-democratic authoritarian Trump Republicans. Would the faction—the one controlled by racist, sexist and authoritative Trump—be defeated by those who have found new backbones to stand for democratic process? Only time will tell. But for now democracy has been saved. It had a very bad friction with authoritarianism but it survived.
For a second, just assume that Vice President Mike Pence had believed that he had the unilateral power to switch Electoral College votes and acted on it and walked out of the Congress. What would have happened? What would have happened if the Congress actually believed in the wild conspiracy theories that Trump Republicans have been circulating and flipped the electoral results for Trump? What would have happened if the Supreme Court had to rule and the conservative majority of Supreme Court justices would have sided with Trump? Those three strikes—executive, legislative, and judiciary—would have put the American democracy in peril. Even after two and half centuries of democratic culture, we could have lost it. Just like that. Democracy is that fragile.
Parallels in Nepal
Now that’s where Nepali democracy currently is. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli dissolved the House of Representatives on December 20. But the new constitution of 2015 does not have a provision of dissolution, without exploring other options of forming an alternative government. But, Oli dissolved the House regardless— that’s the first strike.
President Bidya Devi Bhandari approved the dissolution —and that’s the second strike. And interestingly after a debate with seven of my colleagues—four of whom practice and preach journalism in Nepal—we all agreed that Bhandari had an obligation to save the constitution. In essence, she could not be Mike Pence. Pence could have pleased Trump by accepting his demand and flipping the results for Trump. But he remembered the constitutional duties, luckily on the 11th hour and stuck to it. Had Bhandari done the same and downplayed her party affiliation and revisited the list of her duties as a President and sought counsel, instead of rushing to satisfy Oli, she could have reached a different conclusion. Any President who fails to make an informed decision has an element of incompetence. I think both the Presidents—Trump and Bhandari—share that flaw.
Now there is the judiciary. The Supreme Court in essence has a chance to breathe life into the dying toddler constitution. I say it dying, because the third strike by the Supreme Court will definitely give license to anyone to do anything with it and claim it constitutional afterward.
The party cadres should have some conscience and learn to keep the constitution above authoritative tendencies of their leaders. If this constitution keeps in getting banged like this, it will fail to survive. The graves of the past two constitutions should be the reminder.
I know there are people claiming that Parliament has been dissolved previously—in 1994 by Girija Prasad Koirala, upheld by the court, in 1995 by Manmohan Adhikari, rejected by the court and in 2002 by Sher Bahadur Deuba upheld by the court—and this one is not any different than those dissolutions.
But that was as per the provisions for dissolution in the1990 constitution, not the constitution of 2015. The Apple to Orange comparison, without mentioning the provisions of previous constitution, is misleading.
Hold them to account
You must be hearing that Trump is being impeached for the second time even though there might not be enough votes in the Senate to convict him and remove him from power. He will be out of power in eight days, so why bother.
But still, the process of accountability is beginning in the House for impeaching him. That’s how democracy works. That’s how democracy is strengthened and possible assaults in future are minimized. Unless Nepal wants to keep writing new constitutions every other decade, there has to be a serious consequence for trashing the constitution.
I understand that an authoritarian leader and the party espousing such tendencies ultimately face the people who deliver the final verdict through election. But that’s presuming that election takes place. And even if it did, and people punish such leaders, that won’t undo the damage incurred and there is no guarantee that the trashing of constitution won’t happen in future.
Nepal might have closed that door to accountability for now. But I believe that there is a time to open it through constitutional amendments.
This is an impatient moment for all who care about the democracy in Nepal. I can’t wait to find out if there is a judiciary strike that would send the constitution into the death spiral in making. If it is, congratulations to you all! You might just be the spectators of your toddler constitution succumbing to death.