Nepal’s Democratic Transition: Turbulent but Promising
The persistent political unrest and economic tensions have fueled rising public frustration in Nepal. In the first half of the current fiscal year alone, about half a million Nepalese citizens have migrated to foreign countries. Of late, people have actively started discussing the inadequacies of the current system and the need for new political and governance approaches. This, however, is not a new occurrence in Nepal. Since the 1950s, the country has witnessed frequent changes in the governance systems that can be attributable to rising public frustration in the absence of tangible benefits accruing to their lives from any chosen mode of governance.
While the situation in Nepal appears to be chaotic at the moment, what is evident among countries globally that have gone through such transitions is that they have all faced a similar challenge. Nepal’s transition from an authoritarian regime to a multi-party democracy was merely over 30 years ago. Much like other young democracies, Nepal is still struggling to make intricate adjustments on the executive, legislative, and judicial fronts, whilst also ensuring that the problems of the previous system are addressed, and good practices retained. Likewise, there is an absence of shared understanding of the means to achieve the agenda of economic growth and prosperity, which has hindered coherent and commonly agreed actions from all people. Given the same, over the years Nepal has witnessed a series of protests ranging from civil disobedience campaign, people’s movement, and insurgency, to other forms of public outrage, with each advocating for an alternative form of governance system. Seasoned political veterans have then ridden the wave of public frustration and retained their power in the garb of addressing the popular concerns.
Having said that, referring to Nepal as a failing state would be a misinterpretation. The natural upheaval during transitions cannot be resolved overnight. It takes a significant amount of time and effort to establish a stable system with strong political institutions. Nepal is, in fact, steadily advancing towards a stronger democratic system. Overall, Nepal's exploration of different methods such as abolishing the monarchy and implementing federalism to identify a governing system that aligns with local realities has been a positive development. The government is now closer to the people, and according to the ‘Survey of the Nepali People,’ people's trust in local leaders and institutions is increasing. Decision-making is shifting from the discretion of bureaucrats to elected representatives, and provincial and local governments are becoming institutionalized, allowing people to contest ideas, exert pressure on local leaders to deliver their promises, and hold them accountable. From the 1990s to 2023, Nepal has also seen significant progress in terms of economic policies, infrastructure development, poverty reduction, and adaptation of participatory approaches. In terms of inclusion, the proportion of total elected women representatives has increased from 40.9 per cent in 2017 to 41.21 per cent in 2022 at the local level, from 34.3 per cent in 2017 to 36.36 per cent in 2022 at the provincial level, and from 32.7 per cent in 2017 to 33.02 per cent in 2022 at the federal level. While the increase is moderate, this implies that the number of empowered women who can oversee the functions of the parliament, crosscheck public expenditure, better understand parliamentary processes, and push for reforms has increased. As more women gradually participate in this process, Nepal will have more empowered women who can do all of this and much more.
The frustrations that are simmering and visible at present are beneficial, as they help assess and improve problems within the current system. For instance, while problems pertaining to the resistance of the federal government to devolve power to subnational units exist, it is worth noting that the local units now have more power than ever. Moving forward, the country can work towards making progress in this regard. The growing trend of people voting for independent candidates and new political parties suggests that the longstanding dominance of traditional leaders is facing an increasing challenge. This trend was evident in local elections where 385 independent candidates were elected, as well as in the resounding success of the newly established Rastriya Swatantra Party that garnered 21 seats in the House of Representatives. Nepal has witnessed two rounds of elections under the federal structure, and the trend of the previous elections reveals that in future elections people will continue to elect leaders based on their needs and aspirations. This is a natural process of democratic growth and development.
Given all these achievements, it would not be prudent for Nepal to explore alternative systems to federalism. Currently, things are far from ideal. Perhaps, they never will be! The fact that societies and economies evolve means that the definition of the ideal keeps changing. The institutions are stronger when it becomes resilient in the sense that they can adjust to the changing ideals.
This is where the role of civil societies and development partners will be paramount. They need to channel their efforts towards three aspects – firstly, collaborate to raise awareness on and reinforce the aforementioned gains; secondly, build a shared vision and work towards reforms that directly contribute to sustained economic prosperity; and thirdly, act as a watchdog and whistleblower to check the wrongful exercise of power. The development partners can channel their knowledge, resources, and technologies to assist local CSOs in identifying local needs and aspirations. They can help generate practical reform ideas that hinge on indigenous knowledge and practices, which can stimulate economic growth and usher in transformation. If Nepal’s democracy fails to deliver tangible economic benefits to the lives of the people, then another major political change might just be around the corner. This demonstrates a need to strongly focus on economic prosperity. Once this happens – and this in itself could take some time – people will be able to afford to respond to other development needs.
Furthermore, ensuring that Nepal adheres to genuine democratic principles of representation and decentralization by implementing checks and balances is crucial. Throughout history, there have been instances where nations that were considered democratic have transitioned into authoritarian regimes while still claiming to be democratic. Given Nepal's current situation, it is crucial to prevent political leaders from engaging in activities that undermine democracy. For instance, Nepal’s former prime minister went beyond his authority by dissolving the parliament using a distorted interpretation of the constitution. Such actions should be prevented as they enable leaders to retain their power and misuse it for their personal gain.