Trump is an exception, not the norm. This is all I can say to the status quoists in Nepal who have made Trump a weapon against the idea of a change to a directly-elected presidential system. The day Trump got elected in 2016, the world was shocked. But America was fractured, probably, irreparably. America, the self-declared torchbearer of democracy, seems to have little idea of the damage the Trump phenomenon has done to the cause of democracy the world over. And it has definitely given fuel to the idea that democracy for the sake of democracy should not be made a holy cow. The fast progress of China, with a different but robust system, is adding fire to the fuel.
I am no admirer of the Chinese model, but I have my reasons for advocating directly-elected president for Nepal. I believe this will make Nepal more democratic, not less, fundamentally changing the nature of party politics in Nepal. And without uprooting the deep-rooted blind (almost religious) loyalty to political parties, we can’t hope for any progress towards a real democracy. The society is divided along party lines. Over the years, the fault-lines have been deeply engraved into our cultures, norms and rituals. Even in marriages and last rites affiliation to political parties take precedent.
Our socio-political ecosystem is murky. General public depend on party middlemen for all kinds of work. Starting from normal administrative paperwork like getting one’s citizenship card, to complex issues like getting grants for projects, political affiliations take center-stage. And the rudimentary web of traditional privileges and discriminations is superimposed on this political arrangement. The caste hierarchy plays out strong, too, within the political system thus practiced. In a nutshell, deep-rooted loyalty to political parties is leading to non-democratic power structure and a sense of impunity among the politicians.
Recent displays of disgusting power struggles within the ruling party, the bending of rules with utter disregard for the spirit of the constitution or will of the people, and insensitivity to criticism, all point to a failure of the present parliamentary system in Nepal. Years of political experimentation and compromises have made Nepal a patchwork without a clear vision. How will the directly-elected presidential system fundamentally change the nature of Nepali politics?
The kind of political decay Nepal has been witnessing for many years has rendered our constitutional institutions weak, and political parties have subverted the spirit of democracy by buying off courts, media, private sector, and organized citizens through deep strategic and systematic investments. These bulwarks of democracy have been compromised. The result is this eerie silence and blind reverence we see today.
No alarm bell goes off amid such a decay, as there is no single moment—for instance, a coup or a declaration of martial law—that can be understood as a step towards dictatorship. In Nepal, there has hardly ever been an independent civil society. And those few who oppose a different course are either labeled opportunists or dismissed as extremists who have no patience for the slow and steady democratic progress. Everything takes time is the repeated excuse of the status quoists in Nepal. But sadly, their own statement is a testimony to the fact that even an irreparable decay is gradual progress and raising alarm bells right at the beginning is a must.
All in all, Nepal is on the highway to hell. The parliamentary system and deep-rooted nexus of political parties are the main culprits. In the absence of strong democratic norms, the idea that buying out a dozen MPs or so is enough to make or break a government, will keep fueling the idea of misadventure in top politicians and breed systemic instability. This, in turn, will make positional authority of some senior leaders so strong that they cannot be challenged by any force under the sun, and if they join hands, they gain powers almost heavenly in nature—they, in fact, come to be above the law of the land.
A directly-elected presidential system, on the other hand, will lead to a more robust system of political parties that support performance and merit as the parties will be forced to nominate popular candidates as government head. Nepal will continue to add 10-15 percent new voters every time over the next few decades. And this number can sway any election. But under the present system, with the parties hijacking the nomination process, this people power becomes insignificant.