Laba Karki: Illiberal Democracy In The Making
Illiberal Democracy In The Making In Nepal
By Laba Karki
The restored parliament’s sudden imposition of revisionist ideology into Nepal’s government without a referendum and without the general will and consent of the people is shocking and utterly misguided in its vision. Moreover, its undoing of centuries-old blend of nationalism with the Royal symbolism and the elimination of the bicameral powers in the parliament are blueprints for an “illiberal” democratic government in the making in Nepal.
Like the mythical dragon, the restored parliament -- awoke from its long hibernation -- flexed its muscles, and breathed out fire by proclaiming itself “supreme.” It declared that all the provisions of the Constitution and laws that contradicted its proclamation as “nullified”, and warned that anyone trying to oppose the proclamation would face serious consequences. But it did not stop there. Taking some wind out of the Maoists’ sail, it declared Nepal, the only Hindu state in the world, a secular state.
Further, reminiscent of the “Reign of Terror” (1793-1794) during the French Revolution, the restored parliament in its purported attempt to cure the ailment afflicting Nepal’s democracy purged itself from its arch enemy - the Royal institution. As such, the parliament has prescribed itself a self-inflating pill of ideology: Reign supreme without the Royal clutches and enjoy unrestrained and perpetual power without any liability.
However, the parliament’s grab for power and declaring itself supreme are symptoms of mob-ruled democracy. Did the ex-parliamentarians represent the “general will” of the majority of Nepalese people when it unilaterally maligned and wounded Nepal’s spirit? Or, did the ex-parliamentarians represent the will of the traitors and bullies, the cultural rapists and the Maoist extremists? Or, is the majority in the restored parliament covertly guided by the will of the foreign imperialists to destroy Nepal’s religious tradition and heritage?
While Alexis De Tocqueville (1805-1859), who championed liberty and democracy, admitted in his book “Democracy in America” that democracy was the best form of government, he argued that democracy poses serious flaws and risks. These were among others: “the tyranny of the majority, the mediocrity towards which it impels mores and the loneliness of the individual lost amidst an endless, faceless crowd.” To De Tocqueville, a majority in the parliament, just like a single absolute monarch could abuse its powers and this abuse becomes the “tyranny of the majority”.
Similarly, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), an influential English liberal political thinker argued that while “government of the people” is an ideal to be aspired to, such an ideal is often not the case in fact. He insists that those exerting the power of government, elected officials and bureaucrats, often develop their own vested interests. They are constantly influenced by those constituencies in ways that are at odds with the interests and liberties of people. Mill is not merely addressing the issue of “who should rule?” he seeks to establish limits on the power that government can legitimately exercise over individuals.
Thus, De Tocqueville’s and Mill’s political theories are more relevant now than ever for Nepal because we are witnessing threats against liberty from within the institutions of democracy itself.
A basic principle of all “liberal” democratic system is that the power of the government is not absolute. Further, all liberal democracies are marked by clear separation of powers, rule of law, and protection of fundamental rights. In a liberal democratic government, the elected parliament is limited in its powers by the Constitution, which in turn is limited ultimately by the “general will” and fundamental rights of the citizens. Importantly, the Constitution is the “Supreme Law.” Thus, the restored parliament has clearly overstepped its constitutional authority and committed an “ultra-vires” act. And, when a state commits an illegal and immoral act, it ceases to exert genuine authority over individuals.
Additionally, in a liberal democracy the judiciary has the power to exercise “Judicial Review” whenever there is a breach or violation of authority by other branches of government. Judicial review is an invention of U.S. law as a way of enforcing the constitutionally mandated separation of powers between branches of government and the individual liberties guaranteed in the constitution.
Nepal ’s judiciary already has the power of judicial review under the 1990 Constitution to check abuses by the executive and the legislative branches. Therefore, in the spirit of true liberal democracy, and for the sake of the “general will” of the people, there is the need of the hour for Nepal’s judiciary to intervene and declare the parliamentary “proclamation” an unjust, unconstitutional act and save democracy in Nepal from abuse and exploitation. If the parliament can overstep its constitutional authority, then the Constitution becomes a meaningless document, and the purpose of going for constituent assembly is futile.
Many political scientists consider advanced economy, sizable middle class, and high literacy rates as essential prerequisites for a functioning liberal democracy. Although this condition is still premature in Nepal, a proposed solution to the current crisis is to emulate the European model of government, especially England - the birthplace of modern “liberal” democracy.
England is a constitutional Monarchy with a functioning multi-party representative democracy. The Queen is the head of state and the prime minister, whose power derives from elections, is the head of government. England followed a gradual approach to a representative government. As Zakaria points out, England offers the classic example of “liberal democratization” by a gradual extension of suffrage well after the essential institutions of democracy and constitutional liberalism were already in place.
Nepal worked out this model in the 1990 Constitution. But the ex-parliamentarians have not yet understood and digested the true meaning of liberal democracy and constitutional liberalism in Nepal’s context. The principle laid in the constitution is simple: Just like the moon keeps the earth from wobbling from its axis, the Monarchy restrains and balances the parliament from abusing its authority. Without understanding the basic rules of the game set by the Constitution, one cannot attempt to master the art of governing, let alone lead for Nepal.
Further, the parliament is deluded in thinking that it has finally conquered its enemy. The real enemy of the people in Nepal are: illiteracy, instability, infirmity, illegality and inefficiency of the government - factors which gave rise to Maoists. The Royal institution was not the real enemy of the people. Like Tocqueville said, it is easier to believe a lie than a complex truth.
The parliament has not only expedited the growth of illiberal democracy but also energized the Maoist operations openly. Without the fear of the King, the Maoists continue unabated with their criminal acts and armed struggle. However, with the army and police forces losing morale and lacking the spirit to fight, the restored parliament will be unlikely to prevail against the Maoists. Owing to the ulterior and selfish motives lurking behind our politicians, gone are the days when the Nepali people rejoiced and prided in their unique identity, Gurkha bravery, religious tolerance, peace, security and civility derived from the moral authority of the Monarchy.
In conclusion, “If Rome and Sparta perished, what state can hope to last for ever?” said Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), one of the most influential thinkers of the enlightenment period in Europe. Such is the nature of the political monster of Nepal, which is dragging Nepal to its sad fate of Maoist totalitarianism.