Nepal is often praised for its progressive constitution written by elected representatives but continues to face challenges to realize the democratic dividend for its population. Conflict within and among its political parties has hampered efforts to strengthen the public institutions and to institutionalize the hard-earned democratic achievements. As Friedrich Ebert once said: Democracy needs democrats. Only a committed leadership imbued with democratic values and ethos can bring transformative changes to the society.
Nepal’s long and arduous journey towards democracy started in 1951. People and political parties had fought shoulder-to-shoulder to bring down the partly-less Panchayat system in 1990 and the dictatorial monarchy in 2006. The parties acted as drivers of political awareness and changes but also adjusted to emerging realities over the years. The nation’s experiment with seven constitutions in just over seven decades indicates the people’s relentless struggle for democracy, dignity, prosperity and the right to a happy life.
In 2015, the country got a comprehensive and inclusive constitution that transformed it into a federal, secular, and republican state, ending more than 400 years of monarchy. It adopted the mixed electoral system to bring marginalized groups such as Madeshi people, Dalits, other minorities and women into the political mainstream. Two years later, historic three-tier elections were held to form federal, provincial and local governments.
But a strong government, led by the then Nepal Communist Party (NCP), could not complete its full term. Former prime minister KP Sharma Oli rose to power with an agenda of stability, good governance and prosperity. Three-and-half years into office, Oli, also NCP chair, dissolved the House of Representatives twice, in December last year and then in May, following vicious intra-party bickering.
The House dissolution not only plunged the young republic into a new round of political crisis amidst the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic but also imperilled past democratic gains. As the executive veered off its path, the judiciary stepped in to check democratic backsliding. On 12 July, Nepal’s Supreme Court reinstated the dissolved parliament and installed opposition leader Sher Bahadur Deuba as new prime minister. The landmark verdict ended a period of political uncertainty and brought the derailed constitution back on track. Unfortunately, since then, the opposition has disrupted the proceedings of parliament that needs to formulate dozens of vital laws to strengthen the federal system.
The five-party coalition has prioritized vaccinating the entire population and economic recovery. It has the onus to reinforce federalism based on the concept of self-rule and shared rule that has been instrumental in decentralizing power and redistributing resources. With the new charter, Nepal’s political face is more diverse than ever before, which is certainly a big leap towards inclusive democracy. Nonetheless, the paucity of resources and divisive politics has posed a stumbling block to build a socialism-oriented economy and a robust social security system.
Despite the chronic instability, democratic institutions such as political parties, parliament, the courts, constitutional bodies, media and civil society continue to show their resilience, helping the state to weather the political crises. The roots of democracy seem strong. Nepal will not slide back from its commitment to democracy. That commitment has enabled us to resolve the decade-long Maoist insurgency through negotiations as well as address other societal, ethnic and regional conflicts through the constitutional process.
The 2006 Comprehensive Peace Accord, signed between the then-government and the Maoist rebels, integrated the latter into the democratic polity based on the nation’s indigenous conflict-resolution model. The vitality of Nepali institutions was evident in the settlement of the recent political conflict over the House dissolution and split of the then-ruling NCP into three parties.
People’s political awareness has increased as well, thanks to their enhanced access to ever-expanding media, civil society and civic bodies. Digital and social media have served as an effective platform to share information, ideas, and comments. The new media spurred digital democracy that has empowered citizens to influence decisions on major domestic and geopolitical issues. Their ability to make informed decisions has often been reflected at the ballot box and through peaceful collective action. They punish those parties that fail to live up to their electoral promises.
Nonetheless, there has been a yawning gap between the promise and performance of political parties. There is a clear lack of inner-party democracy and intergenerational justice. Once they reach power, the leaders start to clash over power-sharing and factional feuds are triggered, which sometimes lead to party splits and eventually the collapse of governments. This has destabilized politics and hindered the effective delivery of public goods and services to the people.
The existing political structures provide ample opportunities for such delivery, but Nepal has not been able to realize them. Democracy does not thrive amid poverty, unemployment, and alienation of people both from the state and society. It is therefore essential to create an economy that can provide employment for the growing ranks of youth, so that they, too, can become the stakeholders of the state. Moreover, the democratic space has to be expanded and become even more liberal so that women and youths have more access to it.
Another challenge to deepening democracy in Nepal is the tensions between the constitutional promise of an egalitarian society and the neo-liberal realities. The introduction of neo-liberal policies after 1990 has not only given rise to crony capitalism but also led to the growth of a careerist political class who have hijacked the spirit of democracy. While the political changes of 2006 principally expressed commitment to building a just society, things have not really improved. The privatization of public services has continued unabated and politics, once again, have become more personality-based. The consequences became especially apparent during the pandemic. That crisis has mercilessly exposed the weaknesses of the public sector, including health and education, which will have to be addressed to achieve the necessary transformative change in the political economy.
There certainly is fertile ground for the consolidation of democracy but Nepal’s political leadership and political parties might need to renew their commitment to it. In addition, the electoral process needs to be overhauled, since the personal financial investments in the election process effectively bar less wealthy candidates from running for office. This can limit the representativeness of democracy by excluding those who are most committed to it. Even though Nepal has steered safely through the recent troubled waters, it has to go a long way towards consolidating democracy.
Ritu Raj Subedi is the deputy executive editor of the daily The Rising Nepal.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.
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