In the aftermath of a decade-long conflict and five years after the promulgation of a new constitution, Nepal has had to grapple with many tenets of democratic governance amidst repeated human-induced and natural disruptions. The democratic project that began in the early 1990s remains a work in progress: democratic institutions exist, basic democratic practices like elections have taken place with routine efficiency, and federalisation has created new opportunities for more inclusive governance. However, the dividends of democracy like better representation of public interest, the participation of progressive political interest groups, and increased accountability of government continue to seem out of reach in the face of political party obduracy and resistance to the devolution of power. Citizen efficacy and civic engagement in the public realm can be glimpsed but struggle to emerge from the deep shadows of development and humanitarian assistance cast over Nepal.
Contemporary commentaries on Nepali democracy can be situated within three broad narratives: of incremental democratic consolidation notwithstanding occasional setbacks; of democratic backsliding and creeping authoritarianism; and of unchanged and enduring patterns of kleptocratic patrimonialism. While there are clear points of convergence in the analysis of these narratives, they also sit in tension. Ultimately, the narratives lead to divergent diagnoses of the fundamental direction that democracy in Nepal is moving in — whether democracy continues to consolidate (moving forwards), whether it is in decline (moving backwards), or whether movement in either direction is more significantly shaped by opportunistic groups of elites serving narrow self-interest (moving sideways). In what follows, we provide a brief overview of how each narrative is framed. In the concluding discussion, we draw attention to the complexity of Nepal’s democratic story.
Two steps forwards, one step back
The first narrative highlights Nepal’s gradual democratic gains over the last 70 years. Despite setbacks, this account observes how democracy has continued to muddle forward slowly to become more inclusive — ‘two steps forward, one step back’ — a story that comports well with the still-pervasive (but increasingly challenged) assumptions of ‘progress’ within the development and democracy-building fields.
Thus, while the democratic gains of Nepal’s 1990 regime transformation from absolute to constitutional monarchy were undermined by the outbreak of the Maoist People’s War (1996 – 2006) and the consequent expansion of royal power that culminated in the 2005 coup d’état, authoritarian monarchical rule was, once and for all, brought to an end through the 2006 mass protest movement. The alliance forged between the Maoists and the parties of the democratic mainstream through the 2006 movement also led to the establishment of an elected, constituent assembly — the most representative in the country’s history — to write a new constitution.
Where the first Constituent Assembly (2008 – 2012) failed to ratify a new constitution, a second Assembly (2013 – 2015) revived Nepal’s constitutional moment to promulgate the 2015 Constitution. And while many minority communities continue to argue that this Constitution regresses from the 2007 Interim Constitution and thus fails to deliver on the promise of a ‘full democracy through a forward-looking restructuring of the state’, the much more inclusive polity that the Constitution frames vis-à-vis the pre-war constitutional settlement cannot be dismissed. Federalism, proportional representation, and quotas have expanded space for marginalised groups to participate in political processes; there is greater constitutional recognition of the country’s religious and ethnic diversity; and an expanded list of 31 constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights assures eventual redress of deep-set societal discrimination.
Most obviously, despite some outbreaks of violence during the protests that accompanied the ratification of the new Constitution, the new constitutional settlement emphasizing inclusion has successfully averted the resumption of armed conflict. Going forward, it is generally agreed that embedding inclusion more substantively in the state-building enterprise will contribute towards a lasting peace. This means that the issues that remain — the inclusion of women in political decision-making, elite support for the devolution of power away from Kathmandu, and ensuring accountability of government — have to be seriously engaged sooner rather than later. However, the glass-half-full perspective of this narrative frames these as the next frontiers to be overcome through the ongoing process of constitutional implementation.
A second narrative presents democratic backsliding driven by creeping authoritarianism within the central Nepal Communist Party (NCP) government. Here, the near finalisation of the post-conflict political settlement through the 2015 Constitution is taken as something of a high watermark, with the subsequent faltering, subversive implementation of the Constitution as signs of democratic decline.
The narrative highlights the general subversion of the Constitution by the party in power, the NCP. In particular, the narrative focuses on the party’s stubborn resistance to the sharing of power beyond the political elite of Kathmandu. Despite the establishment of a three-tiered federation, almost every new law passed by the federal parliament continues to concentrate power in federal government actors, in flagrant disregard of the constitutional requirements for key government decision-making to be handed over to the provincial and local levels.
The narrative also points to shrinking space for political dissent and the government’s lack of intent to ensure that constitutionalised rights are meaningfully affected through legislation and regulation. In fact, in 2019, the NCP began advancing an agenda to stymie criticism and constrain civic engagement. Indeed, the general environment has become increasingly hostile for journalists and those critical of the NCP. The federal government has put forward a number of bills that have the potential to curtail free expression. Vaguely worded language in the Information Technology Management Bill, for example, would criminalise social media posts that are deemed to contain ‘improper’ content. Given the increasing utilisation of imprecise provisions in existing laws to detain and fine journalists and other prominent individuals, fears that the new provisions will be used to restrict freedom of expression seem well-founded. There are also concerns regarding attempts to undermine the independence of the National Human Rights Commission and moves to restrict the NGO sector. The lack of movement in appointing and activating various constitutional commissions is further evidence of disregard for constitutional safeguards over governmental impunity.
In many ways, this account represents a resurfacing of a narrative that presents the threat of a creeping communist takeover of the state, a trope that is not new to Nepali political discourse and one that proliferated during the Maoist insurgency. The main opposition party, Nepali Congress, as well as independent analysts regularly point to the NCP’s ever-closer alignment with Chinese state interests and the consolidation of power within the hands of a few NCP leaders with the creeping construction of a one-party state along the lines of China. With elections only two years away, this alignment presents a credible threat to the survival of democratic institutions in Nepal.
The final narrative emphasises that democracy in Nepal has only ever been a thin veneer, papering over an extractive patrimonialism that has shaped political order from the birth of the Nepali state. The narrative thus stresses the historical continuity between regimes past and the present constitutional regime.
Prior to the 1990 people’s movement for democracy, state power derived from the Shah monarchy and was wielded by the king or, as under the Ranas, the autocratic prime minister, for the benefit of the small ruling clique. Despite the democratisation of the state in the 1990s, the king, albeit with reduced authority, remained the primary locus source of political legitimacy. However, in this era, as political parties became embedded within the state, patronage networks began to shift away from the palace to orientate around individual party leaders. With the monarchy abolished in 2006, the political parties became the unchallenged organising structures through which patronage was dispensed, and amidst the fluidity of post-conflict transition politics, cross-party collusion became an increasing characteristic of the extraction and distribution practices. Government at national and local levels became increasingly informal (and undemocratic) in order to accommodate rent-seeking behaviour.
Over time, a small number of senior leaders within the major political parties gained a tight grip over the entire political system, using financial incentives to influence individuals. Despite the regularity with which governments have changed, this political party leadership has been incredibly stable. From the late 1990s, the same small circle of leaders has essentially held all of the positions of authority almost unchallenged. This is because they have managed to maintain tight control over resource extraction, monopolised the flow of intra-party finances, and forged close alliances with unaccountable individuals outside the formal state apparatus. Indeed, subordinate positions within the parties now come as the gift of the senior leaders who reap financial benefit from those paying to move up the kleptocratic network’s hierarchy.
Extraction pervades as a deep-rooted political culture. In many regards, little has changed since the Shah and Rana eras — the state remains a predatory institution in which the delivery of public goods and services is wholly subordinated to the appropriation of money and power for a small ruling clique and their clients. The poor performance of state institutions and their continuing incapability owes to an entrenched kleptocratic network that is only concerned with state institutions in so far as they provide access to resources or a convenient way to dispense patronage to their clients. Every state institution is tainted by the kleptocratic network — either hollowed out (i.e., captured to compromise its regulatory ability to prevent pilfering of state resources) or weaponized (i.e., deliberately corrupted to positively engage in resource extraction).
Democracy in Nepal: a complex story
While the three narratives sketched out above generally draw on the same factual foundations, their points of emphasis provide the basis for their distinction. In particular, subtle differences regarding what each considers to be the primary time period for examination shapes their analyses. While the narrative of creeping authoritarianism locates itself within the most recent events and machinations of the NCP, the two steps forwards, one step back narrative principally focuses on a comparison between the late 1990s conflict era and today. In contrast, the narrative of persistent kleptocracy searches for patterns of rent-seeking over the entire 250-year lifespan of the Nepali state.
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The differences result in divergent diagnoses of the fundamental direction in which democracy in Nepal is moving. The most optimistic formulation, of two steps forwards, one step back, is generally the predominant frame engaged by development actors and progressive activists, where democratic progress is made, even if in a somewhat muddled way, in a manner that is often presented as inexorable. The narratives of creeping authoritarianism and persistent kleptocracy, however, temper expectations by highlighting the threats to democracy, which should not be viewed as just speed bumps on the way to inevitable consolidation, but sure signs of danger.
Rather than seeking to resolve all of the narrative differences to construct a single neat storyline, it may be useful to view them together in tension. For each narrative serves an important purpose, complicating the state of democracy in Nepal. Such an approach allows us to recognise that the upward bending of Nepal’s trajectory of political reform that was achieved by popular movements since 1990 has been flattened by individualized politics and is being forced downward by society-wide networks of kleptocrats. Failure to understand and purposefully engage these sophisticated networks will cost Nepal its democratic momentum and ultimately its early gains.
Note: This article originally appeared as a blog post written for the International Association of Constitutional Law (IACL) Global Roundtable on ‘Democracy 2020: Assessing Constitutional Decay, Breakdown, and Renewal Worldwide’ and can be found here.