Nepal’s constitution offers a flawed concept of democracy. The current constitutional crisis is, in part, an exhibition of those flaws.
In this five-part series, I explore the elements that make our constitution inherently frail and call on civilians to build a truly apolitical (or non-political) movement to save it.
Part V: Civil Society
Rabindra Mishra, a newly minted politician who heads the Bibeksheel Sajha Party, offers one of the best recent illustrations of the vulnerability of Nepal’s constitution. In a recent think piece, “Changing Course: Nation over Notion,” he calls for the “abolition of federalism by restructuring and strengthening local bodies,” and a “referendum on secularism.”
Mishra’s piece plays on the prevailing deep public discontent. He concludes, without any meaningful analysis, that federalism and secularism are to blame.
Mishra isn’t the only politician seeking to build a following by challenging Nepal’s constitution. Traditional and alternative political parties have used it to tap into public discontent. This is populism at its worst. Nepali citizens must push back against efforts to erode the legitimacy of the constitution and mobilize, neutrally without political affiliation, to strengthen the national charter.
Nepal’s constitution is flawed in many ways. A parliamentary system that makes the prime minister immune from accountability to parliament, for example. A federal structure that aims to empower minorities but wistfully longs for a strong majority at the center. Our constitution is far from perfect and has plenty of room for improvement. But it is our best option. What we need is an apolitical civilian movement that can restore the faith in our constitution and build a stronger democracy through deeper civil society engagement.
As civilians, we must stop associating a single party majority in parliament with stability, and a coalition government with instability. Our stability must now come from parliament where no party holds a clear majority. Nepal’s federal structure, its electoral system of direct and proportional representation, means that a single party is unlikely to ever win a majority in the central parliament.
Besides, truly representing Nepal’s diversity requires the inclusion of different parties and interests. This diversity makes a clear majority highly unlikely. We must stop encouraging the consolidation of parties and instead, push for greater diversity. Coalitions of political parties represent the best source of our future stability.
As civilians, we must find ways to end the involvement of political parties in local government. Our local wards and blocks cannot be a place for political parties to build their organizational strength. Grassroots citizens, not political parties, must be elected to and run local governments. As civil society, we must encourage, support and finance non-political, independent civilian candidates to run for local offices.
Across the country, there are many civil society movements, working to highlight a wide range of issues, such as corruption, policy, social injustice, and environmental degradation. They employ different means across social media; campaigns, protests and even hunger strikes. Overall, however, these movements have failed to coalesce. As scattered initiatives, they fail to generate enough sustained impact.
Civil society engagement requires funding. Without financial resources, civil society engagement remains at best a loose conglomeration of like-minded individuals, perhaps each honorable in their own way but lacking the ability to collectively build sustained pressure for change.
How can civilians generate enough domestic funding and resources to support diverse and meaningful movements for change? First, of course, through contributions from businesses. Large and small businesses must consider systematically contributing to civil society movements. For how long will businesses, particularly large ones, continue to fund only political brokers? Even a fraction of that funding diverted to civil society movements could lead to more lasting and sustained change in a way that benefits everyone, businesses the most. Only with consistent funding resources can such civilian movements work more systematically for change.
Second, there are many inspiring civil society leaders across Nepal who have remained as civilians, not joined a political party or started one. These leaders must do more, not just to promote their ideas, but also to build organizations. Movements cannot be easily funded, civil society organizations and institutions can.
Burning our constitution, eroding its legitimacy, or seeking a populist referendum will not remove our disillusionment. As civilians, we cannot ever stop our politicians from being politicians. But we can make sure that our country runs smoothly and prospers despite the failure of political leadership.