Nepal: Breaking the political deadlock
By Gyan Basnet:
In Nepal, it has been nearly a month since the demise of the Constituent Assembly (CA), and the political turmoil is no nearer a resolution. The country is going through one of the worst political crises since it entered into a post-Civil War peace process in 2006.
Political parties and their leaders have done nothing to fill the political vacuum that exists: they simply blame each other for the shameful failure of the CA to produce a constitution. It is a disgrace that they have now taken to the streets to flex theirmuscles and play a power game rather than sit down and seek a solution through dialogue among themselves.
The parties seem to have forgotten even the first essential element of an open and democratic society – talking among the different segments of society as a means of establishing a common and just path forward. The sad demise of the CA and the present political crisis brings mind-blowing questions today: Is there a solution? How can Nepal overcome the on-going turmoil? Can the country possibly find a solution that is acceptable to all?
A number of proposals have been put forward to address the turmoil. Some advocate a revival of the defunct CA: others encourage President Ram Baran Yadav to act – even to take legislative power. I firmly disagree with both schools of thought. To re-establish the defunct CA would be practically unproductive, legally and constitutionally complex, and politically suicidal.
There is no democratic basis for doing this, and this is no time for the country to travel in reverse gear. On the other hand, looking to the president to end the deadlock will only intensify the political turmoil in the country. The role of the president must remain mainly ceremonial – a respected protector of democratic values according to established traditions and not an exerciser of power.
Fresh mandate the best option
The political parties must find a solution to the present political crisis. They have one chance to do something historic for their country. Together they can take the country forward through inclusive dialogue, genuine understanding and essential common sense. I firmly believe that it is time for them to knock on the door of the people. A fresh parliamentary mandate would be the best and most democratic option for their country today.
Prime Minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai’s unilateral decision to call a second CA election in May 27 was meaningless and a folly. International experience suggests that there is no guarantee that a second CA would be any more likely to produce a constitution than the first. For a full democracy, power must lie with the people, who must be trusted to decide the direction of their country’s affairs. If there is to be a fresh mandate, it should be for a limited-size parliament: that would be the most practical choice. Such a newly elected parliament could focus immediately on critical problems unlike the defunct CA, which had to contend with too many broad agendas at once.
The first essential step is for Bhattarai to resign as soon as possible in order to make way for a government of national unity. It is legally, constitutionally and morally wrong for the premier to remain even a minute longer in power. His decision on May 27 to go for a new CA election failed both to demonstrate political maturity and to follow minimum democratic norms and procedures when deciding on a matter of such serious national interest.
There need not be a rush to hold an election just for the sake of it. First, the country needs a broad national consensus on the agenda for reform and on the responsibilities and functions of the future elected body. Alongside the parliamentary election, a separate ballot box can be used for a referendum on the most contentious issues before them such as federalism, the structuring of states and the system of governance.
As well as reducing cost and killing two birds with one stone, the election and referendum combined will enable people to have their say in a most democratic manner. The now defunct CA was too costly for a country with over 60%t of its people living below the poverty line. The proposed new parliament must be less costly and more effective.
A fresh mandate is a vital first step to bring the country quickly towards a political transition. “Politics as usual” will simply no longer work in Nepal, and the country cannot move now into reverse gear. An election following inclusive political dialogue is the only legitimate means of starting fresh talk among the people, between the political parties and the people, and among the political parties themselves.
This vote is the only way to discover what the Nepalese people want at this time because there has been no election there for over four years. People’s needs, sentiments and perceptions will have changed during this period. Now is the time to let the people speak for themselves.
Politics of conscience
Intellectuals, the media, and civil society are supposed to be the backbone of any democracy. They are supposed to check for malpractice in governance, especially among the political parties and their leadership. These elites are supposed to play the role of warning. They are supposed to recognize right from wrong – to praise for the one and to chastise for the other.
It is so regretful in Nepalese context that this is not happening, for all these sides appear to have surrendered themselves to the party political machines. They have become no more than “Halia” and “Gulami” (enslaved) of the party politics – mere advocates of party political interests.
Where today is any system of checks and balances, of transparency, or of accountability – the essential pillars of any democracy? Power should lie with the people, but in Nepal, power has become a personalized commodity reserved for the political elite. The rule of law has been sacrificed, as corruption has become a way of life affecting politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen. Now is the time to change their attitudes: the time to allow value-politics based on conscience and common sense to take over.
Intellectuals, the media, and civil society must free themselves from the grasp of partisan politics and become the source of constructive guidance and fair criticism. Their central mission now must be to change the mind-set of 27 million people and to encourage them to engage in active citizenship.
Politics will only find sensible solutions when these Nepalis start asserting their rights as citizens and rights holders. It is vital that they become more active politically and socially. It is vital that they exercise good judgement when participating in the political process. It is vital that they use common sense when choosing between right and wrong, between good politicians and bad.
It is vital that they as citizens prove that they are more than blind supporters and more than mere voters. The people as a whole must become more aware of policies and their failings, and they must learn to make rational judgements over issues of public concern. The national interest, social values and democracy in their country must always stand above partisan politics. That is why a fresh parliamentary election soon is the preferred means of ending the present political deadlock.
Dr Gyan Basnet who holds a PhD and an LLM degree in International Human Rights law at Lancaster University, UK is a researcher in International Human Rights Law and an Advocate in the Supreme Court of Nepal.
(Copyright 2012 Gyan Basnet.)