A Curious Conundrum

Written by Jan Sharma  •  Region  •  February 2012 PDF Print E-mail

As Nepal prepares to draw up a new constitution, old political habits paralyze the process. It is a curious conundrum that Nepal, the oldest country in South Asia and created seven years before the United States was founded, struggles to draft a new constitution to institutionalize a federal democratic republic following the abolition of the Hindu monarchy by a constituent assembly elected in 2008. It will be Nepal’s seventh constitution since 1948. Few believe it will be a document reflecting the common aspirations and will of the Nepali people.

A new constitution was initially expected by May 28, 2010. There are serious doubts if the constituent assembly, elected for the very purpose of drafting the statute, will be able to deliver despite repeated extension of its tenure. The Supreme Court has already ordered that there will be no further extension of its tenure beyond 27 May 2012. That the most contentious issues – the so-called “restructuring” of the state and the form of government – are still being debated at the fag-end of the assembly’s term is indeed an ominous sign.

A commission consisting mainly of unemployed activists has now been asked to finalize an incongruous draft on state structuring. No one knows what it will finally come out with. As for the debate on the form of government, it initially started with a genuine concern for stability and prosperity but now is dominated by the personal whims and ambitions of a handful of political leaders who see themselves as the new kings of Nepal. The Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) are leading a campaign for a “mixed system” with elements of both presidential and parliamentary models, while the ruling Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (Maoists) favors either a directly elected president or prime minister with full executive authority.

An opinion poll published by the Kathmandu-based Interdisciplinary Analysts in December reflects the popular mood, which is shifting from disappointment to despair. A large majority – 59 percent – said the country is headed in a wrong direction because the political parties and their leaders have failed to draft a new constitution and the government has failed to address the key issues that directly impact the lives of the common people: poverty, price hikes and unemployment. The poll also found that a majority think the constituent assembly will not draft a new constitution at all. Resentment towards members of the constituent assembly is growing, with 62 percent ranking their performance as poor because they were simply consuming state allowances without delivering anything. 

The current debate on the form of government is mainly focused on the presidential form of government, a Westminster parliamentary one, and a mixed one. With such a rich experience in governance - ranging from a military monarchy to a constitutional polity and from a family oligarchy to a republican regime – Nepal needs to learn lessons from its own experience than look at what is happening in obscure lands. Any political system anywhere in the world operates in a given political culture. No political system in the world – except rightist dictatorships or communist totalitarianism – is bad. But the success – or failure – of the political system depends on not just the political leadership but also on how ingrained the regime is to the country’s political culture. Nepal has always been a consensual society led by a strong leadership, which unfortunately was never democratic. Some of its most successful leaders who dramatically transformed Nepal and the Nepali society – Prithvi Narayan Shah, Jung Bahadur Rana and King Mahendra – have always been, and will remain for a long time, a role model for future leadership.

Maoists argue that the presidential system will give Nepal a strong and stable government that will directly be accountable to the people. Some political parties suspect that Dahal, as a directly elected president, could possibly rob the Nepali people of their political and economic freedom. The fear is that what recently happened, and is happening, to the elected presidents in the wake of the Arab Spring in several countries, might also happen in Nepal too. The longing for a strong executive president is reminiscent of the monarchy in Nepal. The Maoist party Chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who campaigned to be “the first president of the republic of Nepal” during the constituent assembly election in May 2008, is confident of sweeping the presidential election. He remains virtually unchallenged because he has rich oratory skills, heads the richest political party (at least in South Asia) and exercises diplomatic power. The Nepali Congress or the UML leaders look like pigmies, posing little challenge to what could be Dahal’s sweeping victory. The reluctance of the Maoists to bid farewell to its 19,000 combatants is also seen as part of the game.

As things stand now, the Maoist presidential form is unlikely to fructify, as it does not have the required two-thirds majority. Other political parties, especially the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML, favor the Westminster parliamentary system with some changes. Nepal has extensive experience in parliamentary democracy and political institutions have been built to suit such a system since the introduction of the Interim Act in 1951 (further improved by the 1959 constitution).

The first parliament was elected only in March 1959 but King Mahendra was so disgusted with the feuding politicians that he threw the baby with the bathwater when he revived absolute monarchy in December 1960. The Kathmandu Spring, largely inspired by the collapse of the former Soviet Union and communist regimes in Eastern Europe, saw the revival of multiparty democracy in April 1990. The system allegedly “failed” to give political stability and bring about economic prosperity.

It is not fair to dismiss the Westminster model as having failed in Nepal. Of course, it is not a perfect system. No system in the world is perfect. In Nepal however, the parliamentary system was not even allowed to be fully operational. It is the political leadership, not the system that failed to live up to the expectations of the people. The Nepali Congress, drunk with the power of a parliamentary majority in 1991, began destroying the political institutions and tampering with security agencies instead of building them. The UML, unable to come to terms with the failure of the communist ideology, vented its anger by preventing the government from functioning right from the very first day it was sworn in. The political feud became so intense on the loaves and fishes that no government ever completed a full term. There were 12 governments in as many years.

Neither the presidential system, as the Maoists want to see, nor the parliamentary system, as the opposition seems to want, have the required majority of two-thirds to be adopted by the constituent assembly. The composition of the assembly is such that there is no option but to reach a compromise. This means there will be a president and a prime minister with some vague power sharing arrangements. Given the feuding nature of the leadership, the president and the prime minister will start fighting among themselves. The twin objectives of stability and prosperity will remain elusive.

The Nepali curious conundrum then is the simple question: how can the political parties and their leaders be part of the solution when they are part of the problem? The opaque financial accounts of the political parties and their indifference to basic problems of health, education, food and energy security, make matters worse. Another major issue is ensuring the elections are conducted free and fair so that guns, goons and gold do not play a decisive role. Political corruption is so widespread that politicians live luxurious lives while ordinary people are subject to hardship. Most importantly, political parties must deliver; a task which they have shamelessly and consistently failed to do so in the past. The sooner the political transition ends, the better it is for everyone.  

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