Nepali Times
Guest Column
The middle way


As Nepal's choices narrow down to either a 'guided democracy' of the right or a 'people's democracy', it is time to start looking for an alternative middle way.

Under both scenarios, the first casualty will be competitive elections and the loss of civil liberty and individual rights. From a practical geopolitical point of view, a Maoist 'utopia' with a heavy dose of social engineering in the middle of the two rising free market economies is hard to imagine.

Our elder leaders did suffer in their struggle for liberty from the Rana regime and the autocratic Panchayat system. But after achieving a multiparty system, their focus and priority was on winning elections and the need to raise funds by any means to win votes. They began to lose authority over the behaviour of their party cadre and the civil servants. The rot spread quickly through the system.

By the end of the 1990s, Nepal was practicing an illiberal and dysfunctional democracy. But despite all this, democratic institutions were being built and a new culture of political choice and freedom was spreading across the land. The foundations of a future genuine democracy were being laid.

This glimmer of hope can be seen within the entrepreneural spirit of our small private sector. It was too much to expect our democracy to be perfect in just 10 years. But when the time comes to pick up the pieces and rebuild it with a new constitution and a new democratic process, we must put more emphasis on the rules and liberal norms rather than just elections. Many leading democracies in the West built their nations in that way. Even semi-democratic Asian economies implemented sound liberal values like rule of law, quality of regulation and accountability. We must strike a balance here, and in several ways:

The political parties must first exhibit some internal democracy. They must be brought under a strict code of conduct, including fair and progressive election finance rules, which will allow a fresh young leadership to emerge.

Political devolution to regional governments and some form of mixed proportional representation system of election may give added weight to grassroot voices. Half the countries around the world have these two provisions in one way or another.

This should be followed by economic devolution with a 50/50 revenue sharing formula from hydropower and other resources to be ploughed into local development through federal incentives to innovate, develop and invest. This will balance regional economic growth and allow fairer benefits to local populations. Political and economic devolution can benefit both the center and the regional governments.

Separation of powers and the question of the army's chain of command is one of the most intractable points of disagreement between the king, political parties and the Maoists. The current three-member Defence Council may be widened to include some key ministers and other House representatives. The commander-in-chief should be a non-voting member and, most importantly, the military must be brought under parliamentary control. The constitutional ambiguity regarding the Article 127 and the role of the Monarch must be clarified once and for all.

Educational reform with a three-tier decentralised education system implanted in each region needs to be adopted immediately to fill the vacuum in the education sector and to level the playing field for all Nepalis. Political meddling in education, among other factors, is directly responsible for the collapse of the public education system in Nepal, and the blame lies squarely with the political parties.

Control of corruption by giving the CIAA more teeth and reducing political interference in its functioning.
Freedom of expression and free press are essential rights, without which civil society cannot function and act as a watchdog. But personal liberty to make economic choices and to own private property is also a fundamental right. The right to periodically choose new governments should rest with the people, and must be exercised within a competitive multiparty electoral environment.

These long-run solutions must be debated openly in a democratic manner and may even provide an anchor for a negotiated settlement with the Maoists and the other political parties. With the formation of an all-party government, the country must move forward to create a new constitution and the Maoists will find that their salvation lies in renouncing violence and joining the political mainstream.

Alok K Bohara, PhD, is professor of economics, University of New Mexico

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)