Sixteen years of republic: What went wrong? What may be done to sustain the system?

With collective willpower, transparency, accountability, and integrity, political leaders can sustain and strengthen the young republic.

Randhir Chaudhary

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The 16th Republic Day is being celebrated today in Nepal. This day marks the establishment of a federal democratic republic following the abolition of the monarchy. Major political parties have been participating in several programs promising to work for the sustainability of the republic. Meanwhile, few rightist or royalist elements are trying to dilute the discourse of the republic. Amid this difference, it’s time to ponder whether there is an alternative to this system.   

Pages of history

The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) launched ‘People’s War’ in 1996. The nation had started facing the devastating consequences of war. In 2001, when King Birendra and his family members were massacred, it curved the line of monarchy in Nepal. Immediately after the massacre, Gyanendra Shah became the king, at a time when he had a very low credibility. His ambitions, immediately after the royal massacre of June 2001, were very high as he had become the king all of a sudden in an unnatural circumstance. Just after a year in 2002, Gyanendra dismissed the then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and tried to become a ‘direct political ruler’ and appointed Lokendra Bahadur Chanda, a royalist, as the PM. The major challenge of that time was to bring peace to the country which would be possible only by bringing the Maoists into a peaceful politics. But Gyanendra started putting democratic leaders under arrest. He exercised executive power, curtailed individual liberties, and declared a state emergency.

Maoist insurgency and autocracy from Gyanendra created a situation for the political parties and civil society members to bring Maoists on the board of consensus. To make this happen, in 2005, a 12-point understanding was forged between the seven-party alliance and Maoist rebels in New Delhi. The core demands of Maoists were republicanism and Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. With this agreement, Maoist also joined the Janaandola-2 commenced by the civil society members eventually joined by the seven-party alliance along with Maoists. On completion of the people’s movement, Gyanendra was dethroned and Nepal was declared a federal republic. The Constituent Assembly defined Nepal as ‘an independent, indivisible, sovereign, secular, inclusive, democratic, socialism-oriented, federal democratic republican state.’

Achievement vs implementation

As Nepal became a republican state, this raised the aspirations of the people. Under the federal setup, Nepal got seven provinces, 753 local bodies, and one federal government. This was a welcome development but the leaders, who were the torchbearers of the republic state, failed to materialize the changes in a concrete way. As per Article 47 of the constitution, the government shall make legal provisions for the implementation of fundamental rights within three years of the commencement of the constitution. The given timeframe has already elapsed. Seven years after the promulgation of the constitution, the government(s) are yet to enact a dozen of essential laws.

The same is the case with federalism. Those who see federalism as an outlandish and expensive system are not raising questions to the federal parliament and the government to furnish the system with essential laws. The state of the federal republic in Nepal is dwindling. All state apparatuses which meant to protect and promote the system are in disarray. The sovereign parliament which was supposed to be stable was dissolved twice in 2021 by KP Sharma Oli.

The hope that the new constitution would address people’s concerns has not been realized. The federal parliament became the victim of party politics suffering several disruptions.  Similar practices are being replicated at the provinces.

To make the journey of the republican system smooth, there should have been changes throughout the state machineries including the judiciary, security agencies, and bureaucracy. But the Permanent Establishment of Nepal (PEON) seemed reluctant to do so. Traditional mindset still prevails among the rulers, when it comes to devolving powers by inviting meaningful changes in the state agencies. Favoritism is rampant.

In this regard, it is useful to recall what Francis Fukuyama calls the extension of old kinship loyalties into institutions of the state as means of ‘elite capture’ of democratic institutions, in the absence of strong institutional incentives. The groups with access to a political system will use their positions to favor friends and family, thereby eroding the impersonality of the state.  This process of elite or insider capture is a disease that afflicts all modern institutions. In Nepal, while appointing the heads and subordinates of constitutional bodies, the major political parties prefer their kin and kith rather than following transparent and accountable ways.  We should always keep in mind that republican systems operate on the principle of equal opportunities and equal protection under the law, where every citizen has an equal voice in the decision-making process, regardless of their social status, economic background, or political affiliation. This system promotes transparency, accountability, and representation of the people’s interests, in contrast to the monarchies and oligarchies where power is concentrated in the hands of a few elites.

To make the journey of republican system smooth, there should have been changes throughout the state machineries including judiciary, security agencies and bureaucracy. This did not happen.

As this article is being written, ‘corruption’ stands as a pressing issue in Nepali polity. Taking advantage of this situation, leaders from former King Gyanendra to parliamentarian Gyanendra Sahi are instigating the Nepali people to revert to the republican system.

Nepali citizens should bear in mind that corruption has a long history in Nepal. From the Rana regime to the monarchy, several scandals of corruption impeded the economic growth of Nepal.  The positive side of the republic system is, even an ordinary Nepali can join the street protests against corruption and question any powerful leaders involved.

Valuing the dream of martyrs, a procedural republic must be replaced by a substantive one. With collective willpower, transparency, accountability, and integrity, political leaders can sustain and strengthen the republic.

Randhir Chaudhary is Executive Director of Peace Development Research Center (PDRC).

Twitter: @randhirJNK