Premiership in instalments
There are many signs of Nepal’s democratic decay, but the one that has made the stench unbearable in recent weeks is the agreement between the three political alpha males to divide up the five-year term of prime minister between themselves.
That backroom deal was not what Nepalis voted for in 2022. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoist Centre (MC) has so far led three coalitions in two months: one with the Nepali Congress (NC) to fight elections, another with the UML to be prime minister himself, and then breaking that off to go back to the NC for the president’s election on 9 March.
Such do-or-die desperation to get an expedient candidate for a ceremonial post has shown just how deep the rot is. This graft-ridden male gerontocracy will do anything to cling to power through the skin of its teeth, the country be damned.
The recklessness does not just undermine Nepal’s hard-won democracy, but also invites instability and a dangerous drift towards extremism. It ignores the fact that only 61% of eligible voters bothered to cast their ballots last year with the message of ‘none-of-the above’. And among those who voted, most young Nepalis went for the independents.
The alternative RSP and non-party mayors served as an effective safety valve to secure the democratic system, and protect traditional parties. It temporarily allayed the deep disillusionment of voters, providing some hope that change was possible.
Those hopes have now been dashed with the RSP showing itself to be like the rest. Although this may give comfort to Nepal’s serial politicians, it also shortens society’s frustration fuse. Nepal’s overseas workers are already threatening to stop sending money home unless they are allowed to vote, and politicians behave themselves.
None of the main parties, civil society and activists have spoken up against populist media-bashing by RSP leader Rabi Lamichhane. The parties may be relieved that blaming the messenger deflected some of the public anger against them, and kleptocrats could be glad that the media that has exposed their wrongdoings is being targeted for a change.
The superstructure of the Nepali state was already wobbly because its executive, legislative and judicial pillars were weakened. The media's fourth pillar, which had been defending democracy by using its constitutional right for press freedom, has also been enfeebled.
It is easy to blame geopolitics: New Delhi’s domineering role in determining the course of Nepali politics, or the reverberations in Kathmandu of global Sino-US rivalry. But instability and external interference is a chicken-or-egg: do foreign powers interfere in Nepal because the government is weak, or does foreign interference weaken the government?
This being Nepal, things could change after the presidential election on 9 March, and the NC once again ditches the MC to lead the government. We will not be surprised if that happens.
It is hard to say who won and who lost in this see-saw politics. It seemed like KPO had outsmarted SBD, but then PKD suddenly switched sides, and KPO wooed MKN with presidentship. The 7-party coalition has been replaced with an 8-party one. Winners may not stay winners for long.
But in the end, everyone lost. And by far the biggest loss is to Nepal’s democracy.