Democracy First – OpEd
By Dr Gyan Basnet:
Politics in Nepal is marred by too many vicious conflicts between the parties and by too much internal discord within the parties themselves. Coercion, repression, patronage and clientelism have taken over as the means of retaining power. The country has been hostage to uncertainty for over seven months since the demise of the Constituent Assembly, which had failed to come up with a constitution within the stipulated two years, and which kept extending its term until the Supreme Court intervened. In the words of Shastri Ramachandaran, an independent political and foreign affairs commentator: ‘The so-called ‘Republic of Nepal’ is bereft of life breath, namely, a constitution. There is no government, at least not a legitimate one’. The present coalition of Maoist and Madhesi parties is the result of pure opportunism that can claim no legitimacy under any constitution and, moreover, the people have not sanctioned it. In fact, the present government, Ramachandaran adds, ‘is the hostage of a self-appointed group’.
Many deadlines laid down by our President for the political parties to reach a consensus over the formation of a government and to recommend a consensus candidate for Prime Minister expired without any resolution of the country’s interminable political crisis in sight. Does this not bring shame on our nation as a whole? Do the power hungry practices of the politicians, especially of their present Prime Minister, not help to breed self-serving inter-party conflict and internal party dispute that can only prolong yet further the political uncertainty in the country?
Fracturing within and among our political parties has been a common phenomenon for over half a century in Nepal, but of late the practice has exceeded all reasonable limits. There is no rational justification for this. Today, the lack of a common vision among the political parties and their leaders, together with social divisions in the name of ethnic or regional politics, indicate that they are embarking on a path that is far from certain. Many questions need to be asked: Is multiparty democracy really working in Nepal? How effective are their rules governing the democratisation process? What can be done to consolidate multiparty democracy? Why does so much internal party conflict occur? What are the consequences? Where is internal party conflict taking Nepal’s nascent democracy and politics? To what extent are internal party and inter-party disputes responsible for today’s political deadlock?
Political parties are essential national institutions for promoting and consolidating democratic norms and values. They are needed not merely to contest elections, but at all times to organize the social forces that drive the democracy. They should be pathfinders for the nation highlighting milestones for different people and different segments of society. In Nepal, however, the reality on the ground is much more complex. There is too much gutbanni, natabad, and cripabad: most importantly there is a culture of too much greed for power. Consequently, the politicians have so often failed to show the political responsibility and accountability towards the people that the nation should be demanding of them.
Over time political parties everywhere split and re-form. It is the essence of democracy and of meaningful discourse. However, in Nepalese context it would appear to have been happening for over seven decades, not so much for ideological or even rational reasons, but because of personal hunger for power among the leaders and, most importantly, disagreement in len-den (give and take) between them. Our political parties and leaders seem to be guided less by principle and conviction and more by selfish power grabbing in order to serve their own petty interests. A recent split within the Maoist party, for example, would appear to have had less to do with ideology and more to do with personal conflict and the sharing of power and resources. Such splits are easily attributable to a moral vacuum in our politics.
All of Nepal’s political parties have struggled with factions that inevitably contribute to internal party strife. They can produce deadlock situations and prevent the parties from achieving collective goals. A disagreement can easily cause a split in the parliamentary vote with MPs switching sides and the parties themselves even breaking up. The following can be considered major reasons for internal party disputes: favouritism – promoting one’s kith and kin; unequal sharing of resources – the leader’s constituency scores over others; lack of regular meetings – such as adhibeson to change their leadership; centralised authority – power concentrated at the top; weak political institutions – encouraging undemocratic attitudes and a partisan state media.
The parties have a top-down organisational structure with highly centralised power and decision-making. This leaves no room at all for the kind of deliberative decision-making process that involves the party membership. Internal party dissent can quickly evolve into internal discord, leadership wrangles, party splits and in some cases open violence. These factors further weaken largely unstable political parties and compromise their ability to select credible candidates in order to compete in elections and to govern effectively.
Splits within the political parties are responsible for a severe weakening of the nation state, of its democracy, and of its political stability. Nepal has over seventy years’ experience of political parties, but it still suffers from nepotism, favouritism and corruption. There is little to prove that we have learnt much from that many years of experience. Party politics should essentially be about serving the people, but there has never been any really serious interaction between the people and the political parties or their leaders. In many cases even a single family or clan can set the agenda for a whole party.
For political parties to remain key agents of democratisation, they need to embrace an internal democratic ethos. Their practices and principles should be capable of managing constructively any internal party dispute. Failure to do so often results in undesired outcomes such as a lack of cohesion, factionalism or instability leading to resignations and/or expulsions, a decline in membership and electoral support, and weak coalitions. These factors ultimately undermine the political parties’ effectiveness as agents of democracy. The parties must therefore sufficiently maintain their internal party democracy, and they need also to build smooth and cooperative inter-party relationships that allow for political tolerance of their divergent opinions and views. A culture of political tolerance should be accompanied by constructive engagement by the parties on various national issues, both during and between elections. This might guarantee inter-party dialogue wherever and whenever misunderstandings prevail.
Political parties are essential institutions for the proper functioning of a democratic society. As social organisations designed to contest and attain political power, the parties serve several functions including determining the content of the political order, selecting authoritative leaders, resolving disputes, maintaining order and promoting the various interests of the community among diverse and contending social forces. In order to achieve these objectives, the Nepal’s political parties must offer genuine avenues for effective membership participation in shaping the content, character and objectives of their manifestos.
In Nepal, the nation demands effective leaders who can integrate the diversity that exists and respond to strategic political demands while at the same time addressing the diverse daily needs of the country’s citizens. Internal party democracy is essential for the creation and growth of properly functioning and sustainable democratic institutions. It encourages a culture of democratic debate and deliberation over critical issues and leads to collective ownership of decisions. It promotes party unity through reduced fragmentation, and it can help to ensure that office holders act transparently and accountably in accordance with the rules of governance. At a time of crisis such as Nepalese people are facing today, the establishment of a democratic culture within and between the political parties is the most vital and urgent task to be tackled.
Dr Basnet, who holds a Ph.D. and an LL.M degree in International Human Rights Law at Lancaster University, U.K, is a Prominent Columnist, Researcher in International Human Rights Law and a Human Rights and Constitutional Law Lawyer in the Supreme Court and Subordinate Court of Nepal. Email: email@example.com.