Democracy undone, Nepal sinks into political abyss -By Shastri Ramachandaran
The proverbial chicken-and-egg question is a cake when confronted with questions such as: Which died first in Nepal — Democracy, parliament or the constitution? Can elections be held without a constitution? Does the president remain a “constitutional figurehead” when there is no constitution? Does the prime minister, who has to be a member of parliament, remain prime minister when there is no parliament even if it is called the Constituent Assembly?
These are a few of the riddles thrown up by the multi-party betrayal of democracy in Nepal. The present political vacuum is the worst political black hole in which the country is trapped, although the Nepalese people are accustomed to setbacks in their striving for a democratic order. The first failure was 60 years ago. Less than 40 years after that, in 1990, a new upsurge ushered in multi-party democracy. A new constitution, adopted in late 1990, under the first interim coalition government paved the way for elections in 1991.
Since then the people of Nepal have been treated as so much electoral fodder for the perpetuation of a sham democracy with a succession of parties and prime ministers playing musical chairs in government, and to good profit.
Multi-party democracy simply meant multiple parties having fun at the expense of the people with none of them pursuing economic development or an inclusive political order. Resources meant for development were usurped and misused. There was no trace of governance or any attempt at mitigating the condition of the poverty-stricken majority.
The vast deprived majority remained not only deprived but also un-represented in parliamentary politics. And, one of the world’s poorest countries continued to remain what it was even as the new parasitical elite flourished under international patronage. Inevitably, the twin pillars of constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy came under attack from Maoist rebels who had broken away from the parliamentary communist party.
For 10 years, from 1996, Nepal witnessed a “People’s War”, which was one of the bloodiest, until India intervened to broker a deal for bringing the Maoists to electoral politics: they were already the mainstream; it is the parliamentary parties that were marginalised for their failure to deliver. The end of the Maoist insurgency in 2006 paved the way for fresh elections based on an interim constitution. The Maoists emerged as the single largest party and formed the government.
The body elected in 2008, an interim parliament of sorts, was a Constituent Assembly (CA) for drafting a permanent constitution for the newly-proclaimed republic of Nepal. The task was to be completed in two years. Predictably, that did not happen. The familiar parliamentary merry-go-round saw four prime ministers foisted on Nepal in as many years, and the term of the CA kept getting extended. The peace process went forward and there were agreements on some contentious issues such as integration of Maoist combatants in the Nepalese army. But the principal task of delivering the constitution could never be completed.
None had anticipated this colossal failure. Naturally, no provision had been made for the eventuality of the CA expiring without a constitution. The Maoist prime minister Baburam Bhattarai, who presided over the country’s plunge into a political, constitutional and legal abyss, actually did propose a draft statute. But the two main opposition parties — the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) refused to accept the proposals put forward by the ruling CPN-Maoist and the United Democratic Madhesi Front.
The proposals related to the basis of federalism under the proposed constitution.While the ruling combine favoured Nepal being divided into federal states with an ethnic identity, the NC and CPN-UML would have none of it. Hence, the matter could not even be put to vote in the Assembly on the last day (May 27) of its term. Earlier, the Supreme Court had declined to extend the CA’s life as it had already been extended four times. The Court ruled that fresh elections should be held if the CA’s term ended without completion of its task.
In the event, the NC and CPN –UML gambled on the Maoists coming to a compromise on the form of federalism to avoid elections. However, the CPN-Maoist stood its ground, let the CA’s term expire and announced that polls would be held in November.
That is easier declared than done as there is no constitution for conducting elections. For holding elections, ground rules acceptable to all the parties — at least the big four —have to be framed. This cannot happen until these four come together to form a national unity government.
In the present heat of confrontation that appears unlikely. When the situation cools down and the four parties that betrayed Nepal realise that they have no choice but to go to the people, they will come to their senses and act sensibly. That, at least, is the expectation. It is strange that the Maoists are rooting for elections while the “liberal democratic” parties are opposed to it.