Nepal’s transition as a federal democratic republic is at the most difficult juncture today. Parties in government are reluctant to quit just for the sake of long elusive political consensus, while opposition parties have taken to the streets to topple the government. Yet another splinter political group CPN-Maoists warns of ‘people’s revolt’ while the President continues to issue meaningless deadlines seeking a ‘consensus’ that has become a mirage in Nepali polity. These are indications of our march towards a bitter showdown.
Nepal is rising from the ashes of a past conflict, and has miles to go before it projects itself as a stable and prosperous federal democracy. Of the many challenges, pervasive corruption, bad governance, deteriorating rule of law, widespread impunity, and weak state institutions are key impediments to Nepal’s successful transition to a federal republic. Series of failed presidential deadlines for consensus, UCPN (Maoist)’s stubborn clinging to power, slumped economy, growing unemployment and poverty, politicized bureaucracy, poor service delivery, derelict public institutions and fractious politics are likely to further complicate Nepal’s democratization process.
Some international projections foresee a frightful situation for this young but besieged republic. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index-2012 ranks Nepal in the 139th position, among the most corrupt countries in the world. Similarly, the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators show Nepal as a country with serious governance crisis. The Oxford University’s research shows around 65 percent of Nepalis living on less than two dollars a day. Likewise, the Failed State Index of the International Peace Fund lists Nepal at 27th position, at par with other critical countries.
Nepal is indeed fragile, but not yet a “failed” state. Fragile states usually encounter different challenges like bad governance, poor rule of law, and impunity, among others, more than in normal development contexts. But political actors in counties like Nepal must exhibit a high degree of political acumen to deal with burning political and socioeconomic challenges more aggressively and accountably. Leaders are best remembered in countries that emerged from conflict or political transition, and later established themselves as stable and prosperous countries. Many identify Nelson Mandela as the reason South Africa avoided bloodshed after apartheid, Lee Kuan Yew as an architect for pushing Singapore to a first world status in three decades, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as a hero for stabilizing Brazil’s hyper-inflation and making it an economic power in South America, and Paul Kagame as having made a difference in Rwanda after the genocidal killing of 1994.
Experiences of countries such as Thailand, Pakistan, Bosnia, Nicaragua, Mozambique and others show that neglecting corruption and bad governance from the outset can significantly undermine democracy and people’s trust towards it. As democracy thrives on robust institutions, strong rule of law and good governance, Nepal needs to grow and strengthen democratic institutions to sustain its nascent democratization process. We must be mindful that the chances of Nepal becoming a failed state cannot be utterly ruled out if deteriorating rule of law, bad governance and deadlocked politics continue to take a toll on our young republic democracy. Successful examples of democratic leadership globally have provided proof that long-term economic growth breeds stronger democratic institutions and makes them less vulnerable to setbacks and conflict.
Countries emerging from “system transition” often face great risks of falling into autocracy or other despotic systems. There are ample but painful lessons from failed states across the globe. Freedom House, a US-based INGO, in its report noted declines of electoral democracies to 116, the lowest number since 1995, and nine countries had rollbacks of democracy in 2005. According to the report, “40 countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union made rollbacks of democracy.” As Nepal is also in a difficult transitional phase, we must be careful that Nepal doesn’t rollback to any form of undemocratic regime due to our collective failure to steer it out of its current political impasse and revitalize democratic institutions. Recent political overtures from top brass of the UCPN-Maoist indicate their hidden intention to capture the state. Fears of our young democracy falling prey to autocratic predators are widespread.
Politics has turned out to be a means to accumulate power and affluence. Misuse of politics and power in democracies from Thailand to Pakistan to Philippines to Cambodia to Russia to Venezuela not only distorted the true meaning of the word, but also alienated the general public. The people became disgusted with so-called democrats who seemed to have lost interest in the common cause. In young democracies, the people’s growing disenchantment is due to the leaders’ incapacity to deliver what they had promised to the people.
In many countries where democracy has been recently rolled back, the middle class that once promoted political freedom has resorted to extralegal, undemocratic tactics—supposedly to save democracy itself. Many called for a military intervention or a kind of benevolent despotism to restore the rule of law and fight corruption. When the former king Gyanendra Shah took executive powers on himself, urban middle class population welcomed the move, expecting that it would put things on track. The hopes soon turned into frustration against him, causing his unopposed dethronement.
Disappointed with elected autocrats and frustrated with graft, many middle-class people in developing countries are now longing for the old days of authoritarian rule. Coups in Mauritania and Niger in Africa were welcomed by the urban middle class, while data from the Asian Barometer surveys shows that many respondents have become disappointed with their democratic systems because of politicians who failed to ensure better life and employment opportunities for fellow citizens. The people who protested in streets in hundreds of thousands during Jana Andolan II are now frustrated with political parties as they failed to fix things and break the long standing political stalemate. Political parties are losing their credibility, and gradual decay of their popular trust may be detrimental to our democratic transition.
Pervasive corruption and weak state institutions are key impediments to Nepal’s successful transition to a federal republic.
In two decades of Nepal’s efforts to reassert democracy, many institutions created since 1990s have been destroyed. We have destabilized social harmony, ruined bureaucracy, police, judiciary, local bodies, and many other key institutions. Constitutional bodies have been in a mess for years, and the Supreme Court is now left with only six justices who will be retiring soon. It would take decades for selfless leadership to rebuild these institutions. People pinned high hopes on the political parties to provide them good governance, corruption control, economic development, better life, strong rule of law and social security after the fall of monarchy, but instead, we have only had political infighting for partisan causes.
Things as they stand now don’t augur well for Nepal. People’s hopes for better governance have been ditched by none other than the political parties who promised prosperity in new Nepal. Nepal is now passing through extraordinary political circumstances which need deft handling. The transition from “feudal past” to “federal future” is being marred by a dangerous collusion of conflicting political ideologies, parties’ super-egos and geo-political interests. This is likely to shake the very foundations of our democratization process and may put the spanners in our smooth transition to federal republic. When an autocracy fails, a despot is solely responsible for the downfall, but when a democracy fails, all its actors—political parties, media, civil society, bureaucracy, private sector, citizenry, among others, are equally blamed for the failure. Can we ever share the blame?