Nepal’s incomplete democracy

By Anuj Mishra

ABSTRACT

The institutional power of the monarchy and army could yet thwart Nepal’s fresh democratic experiment.

Content

On 8 November 2006, the ruling coalition and the Maoist rebels in Nepal signed a historic accord to move the country closer towards a negotiated settlement of the decade-old conflict. The Maoists – pending a conclusion of negotiations on the accord, scheduled to be signed on 16 November but postponed at the last minute to 21 November – have agreed to join the new interim government which will hold elections to a constituent assembly around June 2007. This came after months of talks which sometimes appeared on the verge of collapse, threatening to return the country to civil war.

The Maoists’ arms management in the interim period remained the bone of contention. After much negotiation, however, it was agreed that the weapons will be placed under United Nations supervision until the assembly elections.

On the surface, and optimistically, it appears that the peace process has produced a positive outcome. However, the issue of civilian control of the Nepali army remains unsettled, and may yet derail the process.

Since King Gyanendra gave up power on 24 April 2006 — after weeks of violent mass protests around the country — the peace process has been influenced as much by foreign interference as by the ineptness of the ruling coalition. The sole source of the king’s power was the fiercely loyal army. Despite Gyanendra’s apparent willingness to ruthlessly suppress the protests, which would have entailed a massacre, the army baulked in the face of imminent international condemnation.

However, this has not meant that the army has completely severed its links with the monarchy.

Although the reinstated parliament has scrapped the king’s executive authority, the army is still indirectly under the command of the royal palace. Therefore, Gyanendra remains a power, however undefined and unofficial, and by implication a continuing threat to the peace process and democratisation in general.

Reflecting a still unyielding authoritarian streak, Gyanendra recently ignored a set of questions sent to him by the commission set up to investigate the excesses of power during his direct rule. The monarchy also has become an asset for politicians, who use it, threateningly, to thwart each other’s ambitions. In the process, they empower the very system that they have fought against in the struggle to return to democracy. The most amnesiac politician of all has been the interim prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala.

A façade of change

Koirala became prime minister on the tide of intense republicanism that was at the foreground of the popular unrest that ultimately ended Gyanendra’s absolute rule. Yet, all his moves have been directed at preserving the monarchy.

Nepal’s more than half-century of struggle for democracy has illustrated time and again that – without delinking the monarchy and the army – there can be no development towards democracy. Instead of reforming the army, Koirala has sought to preserve the status quo on the pretext of avoiding drastic destabilisation in the military.

The prime minister has appointed a general who allegedly was instrumental in the repression of the protests and is widely believed to be a staunch Gyanendra loyalist. He was questioned by the commission investigating the role of the previous government in suppressing protests, and his appointment has drawn widespread condemnation from human-rights activists and broader civil-society members. Although some facile changes have been made – such as dropping the “Royal” prefix from the “Nepal Army” – reform of the army’s structure, organisation and education has yet to begin.

While the government was involved in negotiations with the Maoists, the army continued to issue press statements critical of the rebels, implying that the army was determined to make its own, independent stance. Although the parliament has promulgated a decree subordinating the army to the civilian government, the continuous command of the royal palace’s military secretariat makes a mockery of that decree.

The old and the new

With the supporters of the royal regime remaining unscathed and the army remaining essentially a preserve of the traditionalists, there can be no guarantee that these forces won’t frustrate the moves towards democratisation in the days to come, just as they did in Nepal’s post-1990 democratic exercise. In 1990, King Birendra – who was later killed in the palace massacre of 1 June 2001 – was forced to give up his executive authority after a series of protests, and Nepal was ushered into a democratic era. Then, too, the question of bringing the army under civilian control was widely debated.

However, Koirala largely ignored the issue of the army, while continuing to rely on an electoral democracy that would make him prime minister for eight of the 12 years of this period of Nepali democracy. The fledgling democratic experience was cut short by the current king – Birendra’s brother – on 4 October 2002, when he dismissed the elected prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, citing the Maoist rebellion as a pretext to maintain political stability.

Gyanendra completed the process of reverting to authoritarianism on 1 February 2005, with a “self-coup” that installed him as the all-powerful executive head of state. This lasted until he was forced to give up power in April 2006, ending a four-year period in which the royalists and traditional conservative elements had effectively exercised unrestrained power in Nepal. (In May 2002, the elected parliament at the time was dissolved.)

These four years of entrenchment and excess cannot be undone in a few months. However, the government must show some effective action to support its claims that it has curtailed the monarchy’s power. So far, Koirala has put too much faith in the token reform of the monarchy, which has frustrated every past move towards democracy in Nepal.

Anuj Mishra is a Nepali journalist and scholar whose work has been published in the Kathmandu Post and other publications. He is the moderator of the online discussion forum, Plus Medium.

Source: Open Democracy – 2006 November 16

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