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Why Nepal will stay democratic

All the warring groups stand to gain more from democracy than any alternative

Kanchan Chandra & Yubaraj Ghimire |
May 12, 2009 12:07:43 am

Crises appear to be snowballing in Nepal.  First,there was a civil-military crisis,as Prachanda,Nepal’s first Maoist prime minister,sacked the Army Chief of Staff.  Then,there was a constitutional crisis,after Nepal’s president,egged on by opposition parties,vetoed the dismissal. Prime Minister Prachanda resigned in protest against the President’s ‘arbitrary’ act.  Now,there is a political crisis as all parties fail to meet the deadline for the formation of a new government.

These crises occur in the midst of widespread civil unrest.  Earlier this week,hundreds of young Maoists carrying flaming torches walked in procession on the streets of Kathmandu in support of Prachanda. Last week,an agitation by the Tharus,an ethnic group in Nepal’s plains,blocked highways to the capital city,leading to long queues for petrol and other essential commodities. Not that the residents of Kathmandu were going anywhere: many stayed home in anticipation of blockades by trade unions showing support for the Maoists on May Day.

Meanwhile,in eastern Nepal,activists for another ethnic group,the Limbus,were agitating for recognition of the territory of “Limbuvan” as a separate province. Nepal’s citizens now seem perpetually to be out on the streets and show no signs of returning home. The question of the day is: “What does this mean for Nepal’s fledgling democracy?”  At first glance,it appears to be under grave threat.  Even before the events of the past two weeks,democracy in Nepal faced several challenges: a weak state,a fragile peace process,post-war reconstruction,capital flight and economic slowdown. Now,these new crises bring to mind Chile in 1973,when the military intervened amid high levels of political unrest,or Bangladesh in 1975,when Sheikh Mujib declared a one-party state,or even Nepal just four years ago,when the monarch assumed direct rule.

But on closer look,no such threat appears imminent: Nepal’s democracy will probably endure in the short term.  There are too many forces in Nepal now that have a stake in an elected government rather than an appointed or a hereditary one. Many of these forces have been created by the limited experience of democracy itself and may now well sustain the system from which they emerged.

Who has something to gain from democracy?  The Maoists,for one! Nepal,like India has a fragmented political system — a fragmentation accelerated by the new electoral system adopted for the 2008 elections. As rulers of a one-party state,the Maoists would be a minority force at the helm of an institutionally and economically weak state.  But as the largest opposition party in a fragmented parliament,they could make life difficult for a new government without the burdens of power.  They can,in other words,do better within the rules of the electoral game than outside it.  No wonder,then,that Baburam Battarai,a senior Maoist leader explained the prime minister’s resignation with the words: “We are trying to institutionalise democracy.”

Other political parties have a vested interest in democracy too. Nepal has seen a proliferation of political parties in the last few years since the electoral reforms: where it had only seven parties of any significance in the 1990s,there are now altogether 24 parties in parliament.  Each is too small to assume control on its own — and has good reason to avoid an autocratic system from which it has a chance of being shut out.  But democracy,as long as it is fragmented,is the best guarantee of a place at the table. And if that table includes the Maoists too,all the better.  As a senior leader of the Nepali Congress put it:  “We want a national government and we want the Maoists to sit in it.”

Those out on the streets also have more to gain from democracy than the alternatives. The torch-carrying Maoist youth,for example,are calling for the implementation of the constitution. It is a self-serving interpretation of the constitution,to be sure. But it is important that they see themselves as playing within the rules of the game,rather than challenging those rules.  The Tharus and Limbus and other groups are mobilising for inclusion within a new constitutional framework. They have an incentive to launch protests within the existing system — the louder they shout,the more likely they are to be heard. But they do not have an incentive to subvert the system that will listen to them .  If elected government were to be suspended,so would the prospect of inclusion.

This does not mean that all is well with democracy in Nepal. But the nature of the problem it faces is not the survival of democracy,but the management of violence.  Nepal is a country with high levels of violence (with its legitimacy as instrument of political change accepted many times in the past). As Nepal’s political parties jockey for power in a fragmented political system,they have an incentive to bring their supporters into the streets: the Maoist protests are a case in point.

It may only be a matter of time before others join. Escalating mobilisations and counter-mobilisations have in the past been accompanied by violence and may well be accompanied by violence in the present. Such violence need not threaten democracy — it may well be produced by it and in turn become an endemic feature that sustains it.

The challenge for Nepal,then,is not how to preserve democracy — but how to separate the practice of democracy from violence.

Kanchan Chandra,an associate professor of politics at NYU,is writing a book on democracy in South Asia. Yubaraj Ghimire is a Kathmandu-based journalist.

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