High road to democratic stability

By Kanak Mani Dixit (18 December 2017) – Nepal has been in distress for two decades, since the start of the Maoist war in early 1996, through royal autocracy, palace massacre, earthquake, foreign interference and communal polarisation. Finally, in a second try, the new Constitution was promulgated by the Constituent Assembly in September 2015. The last roadblock to its implementation was overcome with a series of local, provincial and national elections over the summer-winter of 2017.

The parliamentary elections of November 26-December 7 ended the 70-year tradition of the Nepali Congress (NC) setting the political agenda in power or in dissidence. The Left alliance of the mainstream Communist Party of Nepal(Unified Marxist-Leninist), or UML, and the Maoists have made a clean sweep to be able to form governments at the Centre and all but one of the seven brand new provinces. (The elected MP vote count for the five ‘national parties’ came to 80-UML, 36-Maoist, 23-NC, 11-Rashtriya Janata Party and 10-Federal Socialist Forum.)

Constitutional confidence

While this weakening of opposition is cause for concern, Nepal finally seems set for a stable government with longevity beyond a year. To begin with, Nepal’s adherence to republicanism, federalism and its own brand of secularism are now set in stone, while earlier there was the fear of backsliding. The placement of elected representatives in three tiers from local, provincial to national — including in the restive Tarai plains — means there is now buy-in for the Constitution from all political stakeholders.

New Delhi’s overt show of displeasure regarding the constitutional promulgation too has been overcome through sheer national public will. The citizenry feels empowered for having participated in each key episode of the last decade, including the People’s Movement of 2006, blocking attempts at communal arson, and overcoming the five-month blockade of 2015-16.

The new Constitution marks an innovation in the South Asian landscape, with devolution of fiscal, legislative, executive and other powers not to two but three tier ‘sarkars’.

Besides the national Parliament, the Constitution has empowered representative government in the seven provinces, 17 cities, 276 towns and 460 village municipalities. Emerging from a history of Kathmandu-centrism and two decades without elected local government, today an entire superstructure of representation is in place. Says the constitutionalist Nilamber Acharya: “A system of democratic filtering is in place, and there is excitement among the people to experiment with this new system.”

Deuba’s debacle

While the caretaker Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, deserves all credit for guiding society through the maze of elections, he did run a lacklustre campaign and will not be thanked for the debilitation of the country’s premier democratic party. While NC voters remained loyal, the Maoist swing vote and the romantic call of ‘Left unity’ made all the difference.

During the Dashain holidays, the UML sprang a surprise, enticing Maoist Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’) away from the Congress with the promise of 60-40% share of seats in the provincial/national elections of November-December. This was a godsend for the Maoist party in decline. Mr. Deuba’s poor oratory could not stand against the UML’s firebrand Khadga Prasad Oli, who rode the nationalist plank against the vivid backdrop of the blockade. Mr. Deuba’s dire warnings that the communists as threats to democracy lacked credibility because of his own earlier embrace of Mr. Dahal.

Oli’s moment

All eyes are now on Mr. Oli, having emerged as paramount leader with both electoral and populist power. Under the new rules, a no-confidence motion against a new government cannot be brought for two years, and it is likely that he will get to complete a full five-year term. This situation has been unavailable to any of his predecessors in the entire modern era.

The new Prime Minister’s biggest success will be to ‘neutralise’ the Maoist party — through power-sharing or unification — and Mr. Dahal may be agreeable as his main worry of late has been to keep the cadre placated. In his previous stint as Prime Minister, Mr. Oli had almost brought the transitional justice process to a successful closure, including accountability for conflict-era excesses. The peace process will not be complete till this is done, and Mr. Oli’s staying the course will ensure long-term peace and represent a victory for liberal democracy.

Beyond the Maoists, Mr. Oli will have to build a working relationship not only with the NC but also the plains-based parties with whom he has been combative. Democratic stability would, ipso facto, release long-pending economic energy for which the new Prime Minister will have to fight rather than join the crony capitalists who have entrapped the political economy during the decade of “political transition”.

The economy has to start galloping, creating jobs for the young workforce, including the millions in West Asia, Malaysia and India likely to return due to pushes and pulls beyond Nepal’s control. This requires movement on infrastructure projects, agro-forestry, tourism, service industries and irrigated agriculture in the Tarai plains.

The new Prime Minister will need to mend fences with New Delhi, energised by the strength of his electoral mandate. Based on the set of agreements signed in Beijing during his earlier stint at Singha Durbar, Mr. Oli is expected to accelerate connectivity to the north, utilising the Chinese railway network that has arrived on the Tibetan plateau.

Kathmandu does not yet fully understand Beijing’s super-charged geopolitical agenda, but a confident Mr. Oli can be expected to seek a respectful rather than obsequious relationship. As the commentator Jainendra Jeevan wrote last week, “We don’t want another ‘India’ across the northern border.”

Nepal having become a feeble international player due to autocracy, conflict and transition, Mr. Oli has an opportunity to bring international respectability back to a level not seen since the time of B.P. Koirala in the 1950s. Insecurities having been dealt with, the confidence of the new republic will also be seen in shifting the office and residence of the President of Nepal from Shital Niwas to the former Narayanhiti Royal Palace.

The ride to democratic stability is bound to be bumpy, not least because the Constitution — written by politicians rather than jurists and constitutionalists — is so ‘magnanimous’ that it will be a challenge to implement. Hundreds of laws need drafting, the grey areas in the inter-relationships between the three levels of government have to be clarified.

The concurrent list detailing the rights and responsibilities of not two but three tiers makes Nepal’s experiment unique. Already, one can sense reluctance among the topmost leadership and bureaucracy to devolve power to local government as mandated by the Constitution. The newborn Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court will need to gear up to tackle the deluge.

There are enough triggers out there for social discontent to erupt. The profligacy of the last decade of “consensus governance” has emptied the national coffers even as expenditure is set to rise to meet the needs of local and provincial administration. The post-earthquake reconstruction of households, infrastructure and heritage structures has yet to gather steam.

There is a sharp difference in the economic status of the seven federal units, with Province No. 1 (in the East) and No. 3 (including Kathmandu Valley) the best placed in the GDP and human development indices. An equalisation protocol is the need of the hour.

The power devolved to provincial and local government is liable to expose the population to mistreatment, from economic crimes to human rights abuse. Civil liberty forums must rise to the occasion in all seven provinces, to watchdog all tiers. A society heading out into uncharted waters amid economic, political and geopolitical challenges is asked to implement the democratic, inclusive and social justice-oriented ideals that are to be found in the Constitution of Nepal (2015).

Kanak Mani Dixit, a writer and journalist based in Kathmandu, is founding editor of the magazine, ‘Himal Southasian’. This article first appeared in The Hindu, India.

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