Most countries emerging from civil conflict face the difficult task of re-establishing peace and rebuilding the economy. Nepal is no exception. It entered into the next phase of the democratization process by signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the warring rebels, the Nepal Communist Party-Maoists, in 2006. The CPA stressed the importance of holding Constituent Assembly elections that could pave the way for drafting a new constitution. However, after a series of disagreements and distrust between political parties, Nepal’s transition to democracy remained patchy for almost a decade. The country was further devastated by a mega-earthquake in 2015, killing over 9,000 people and damaging billions of dollars worth of infrastructure. The earthquake sparked political leaders to finalize the new constitution, which had been contested for almost a decade. Nepal promulgated a new constitution in 2015, adopting a multi-party democracy with a federal structure.
The constitution has guaranteed basic civil and political rights to citizens. It has also emphasized equal suffrage and ballot access rights for women and men. There are provisions for the proportional representation of ethnic minorities and marginalized communities—the legal framework for the electoral system and gender quotas in the constitution show potential prospects for democratization. However, problems about implementation loom due to a lack of political competency in the nation’s political parties.
Nepal attempted democratization in the 1950s and in the 1990s. But the failure of these democratic transitions culminated in democratic reversals in 1962 and 2005. The transition that occurred in 2006 was a historic one and a step forward for institutionalizing democracy. The decade-long ‘Maoist War’ and 19-days people’s protest (Jana Andolan II) managed to oust the two hundred and thirty-nine-year-old monarchy, thus paving the way for a full-fledged democracy. In 2008, monarchy was fully abolished by the newly elected Constituent Assembly and the legislative parliament.
This article briefly examines the dynamics of democratization in Nepal since the promulgation of the new constitution in 2015. In particular, it will examine the election and electoral system.
National unity, political cooperation and economic development are prerequisites for a healthy
After the 2017 elections in federal, provincial and local levels, many Nepalis and external observers had hoped that Nepal is headed towards consolidating democracy. However, the lack of credible commitment from political parties and leaders clouds the consolidation process as trust in major parties and institutions has fallen starkly, especially after Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli dissolved the House of the Representatives (HoR) in December 2020, which was restored by the Supreme Court in February. The PM’s move led to the split of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). Criticisms against the PM were far and wide but Oli still remained dominant in politics.
Nepal managed to come out of decade-long conflict but its remnants are still on the ground. Transitional justice is yet to be finalized. Many commentators and political parties believe the federal system was a major leap forward toward democratization. There are high expectations that the newly established democracy will resolve the country’s socio-economic and political problems, piling up for decades.
But the challenges ahead are daunting for the political parties involved in the process. The main challenge is the authoritarian legacies in major political parties like CPN-UML, Nepali Congress, and Maoists Centre). These parties have lacked internal democratization as they have hardly changed their internal party leadership for years. For instance, the NC, despite being the oldest so-called Democratic Party in the country, cannot transfer its leadership to the second generation. Likewise in Maoist Center, Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been in the party leadership for over thirty-three years and is still unwilling to give up the post. Power is still concentrated on one man.
Nepal is in the process of graduating from a least developed country to a developing one. According to the World Bank Report 2020, Nepal’s GDP per capita income was just above USD 1,000, which is the lowest in South Asia. Nepal had a GDP per capita income of around USD 340 in 2007 at the start of the transition. It has hardly achieved considerable growth in the last 15 years. Therefore, building a strong economy is one of the major challenges that Nepal faces today.
One school of thought, primarily that of the radicals, is that the winner-take-all electoral system of the 1990s failed to address the country’s socio-economic and political problems. Therefore, the country has had to choose a mixed electoral system with proportional representation. The constitution has provided a framework for proportional representation by assuming that every citizen can have a fair share of representation in the government. Human rights, including civil liberties and political rights, are guaranteed. Property rights are protected. In addition, the constitution has promised to eradicate all forms of social discrimination, thereby aiming to establish an egalitarian society.
Elections are fundamental to democracy. Experts believe that once democracy is established through a constitutional framework, periodic elections conducted in a free and fair manner help consolidate democracy. However, it entirely depends upon the role of the actors involved and how they play the game. If anyone disrespects the rule of the game, then democracy will get a bad reputation. Nepali politics has suffered from mismanagement and weaknesses in elections. There are widespread flaws while carrying out elections and providing governance. For instance, during the most recent elections, parties engaged in malpractice when counting votes. Several booths had to be recounted, and some re-elections had to be held due to unfair practices, including in the Bharatpur Municipality.
Despite various attempts to move forward with the democratization process, Nepali democracy has experienced setbacks.
Political parties are the pillars of multi-party democracy. If parties are not committed to democracy, then the system itself cannot function. The growing factions in political parties have shown the dangers of derailing democracy—currently, there are no major parties without factions. Factionalism in political parties, combined with nepotism in government administration and appointments, seem to be damaging democratic politics. Widespread corruption is the real danger to democracy. If today’s major parties cannot or do not change themselves, then Nepali democracy will suffer.
National unity, political cooperation and economic development are prerequisites for a healthy democracy. If political parties play a crucial role in building consensus when faced with any conflicting issues, democracy will be further consolidated. Parties should respect free and fair elections. Economic modernization is another backbone of democracy, so the relevant actors and stakeholders should focus on the country’s economic development. No country has developed an enduring democracy without a strong economy, so developing countries such as Nepal should focus on the resources that help make the economy stronger and more sustainable.
Leaders should understand where the problem lies in promoting prosperity and democracy. The major hurdle is transforming politics, the economy and society. Despite various attempts to move forward with the democratization process, Nepali democracy has experienced setbacks. If the political leadership shows its commitment towards democracy and follows the rule of law, democratic consolidation is possible.
Min Bhatta is pursuing PhD in Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen, UK