Lack of intra-party democracy contributing to perpetual political instability

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Lack of intra-party democracy contributing to perpetual political instability

Intra-party rifts have been common in different political parties. And most Nepali prime ministers of the past three decades have paid for their failure to manage the relation between their party and the government / Photo: Reuters

In 1991, following the restoration of democracy in 1990, the Nepali Congress (NC) formed a single-party majority government with a five-year mandate. But largely owing to intra-party rifts, the government led by Girija Prasad Koirala collapsed just two years after its formation, starting a phase of chronic instability that still characterizes the country.

Frequent government changes, never-ending horse-trading for power, and corruption have since become key features of national politics. Again, in 1999, the Nepali Congress secured a majority in parliamentary elections and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai became the prime minister. But he was forced out in under a year, largely due to machinations of Koirala. This ultimately culminated in King Gyanendra’s takeover of executive powers in 2005.

In the first Constituent Assembly (CA) elections in 2008, the mother Maoist Party that had waged the decade-long insurgency emerged as the largest party, with near majority seats in the CA. But the subsequent government of Pushpa Kamal Dahal collapsed after only nine months in office. He had to resign over his sacking of the army chief Rookmangud Katawal, allegedly at the instigation of Baburam Bhattarai who wanted to cut Dahal down to size.

Intra-party rifts have been common in different political parties. And most Nepali prime ministers of the past three decades have paid for their failure to manage the relation between their party and the government. “Democracy demands a responsible, broadminded and consultative political leadership,” says political analyst Krishna Pokhrel. “Yet we have hardly had any leaders with these characters since the 1990 political change.” He attributes Nepal's political instability to the tendency of leaders to confine themselves to small coteries instead of trying to take the whole party into confidence.

Different but same

The formation of KP Sharma Oli's two-thirds majority government in 2018, it was hoped, would finally herald an era of stability. Yet in the two and a half years since, there have been constant talks about rifts in the ruling Nepal Communist Party and egregious lack of coordination between the party and the government it led. “The party gave a free-hand to PM Oli. But Oli failed to maintain a cordial relation with the party,” says Pokhrel. The kind of close consultation and coordination that is needed between the party and the government on policy-related issues was missing. 

Another political analyst Chandra Dev Bhatta also speaks of his disappointment with the two-thirds majority government. “The much talked about stability is once again falling apart due mainly to internal wrangling in the NCP,” he says. The current regime, like the earlier ones, is also heavily occupied by power politics, he avers, at the expense of people’s agendas.

Bhatta argues that ‘elite settlement’ of various democratic movements and convergence between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ classes to amass power, prestige, and money has also contributed to political instability in Nepal.

In the post-1990 phase, the number of political parties mushroomed. In several cases, fringe parties with only a handful of seats in the parliament were able to act as kingmakers. There were other loopholes in the parliamentary system as well. The earlier constitution gave the prime minister full authority to dissolve the House and call for fresh elections. That is why one after another prime minister opted for mid-term elections whenever they faced a crisis of confidence in their own party. In the new constitution adopted in 2015, many such loopholes were closed. Under new provisions, the prime minister cannot call for mid-term elections so long as there is a possibility of government formation from the House floor. Similarly, a no-confidence motion against the prime minister cannot be introduced before two years of government formation. The split of political parties has been made difficult too.

Enemies without

Then there are the external factors. Though India often says stability in Nepal is in its interest, it has often belied its stated commitment. In the past, India was instrumental in making and breaking governments by playing with the contradictions within Nepal. In analyst Pokhrel’s words, “India’s interference remains, and yet the primary drivers of instability are domestic. It was no different in the past.”

Bhatta has similar views on external factors. He cites two primary reasons for their outsized importance in Nepal: the country’s sensitive geographical location and its poor economic condition. “Our leaders have been co-opted by outside powers and today we see the majority of the political class is pro-India, pro-China, pro-West but not necessarily pro-Nepal,” he adds. The role of external meddling is so ingrained in Nepali minds that there is a tendency to see outside hands in just about every political development.

Shyam Shrestha, an analyst of left politics, meanwhile, blames the tendency in communist parties of portraying rival factions as enemies.  “If you see the politics of the last three decades, there has been a tendency of betrayal and non-cooperation in our communist parties. Similarly, leaders don’t seem committed to honoring their agreements. For instance, the first Oli government collapsed in 2016 because of his reluctance to implement the deal with Prachanda. Conditions now are pretty much the same.”

All three political analysts APEX talked to concurred that political stability would continue to remain elusive so long as Nepali political parties failed to strengthen internal democracy.