Democracy under threat

How social and political divisions are driving the process of democratic erosion

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Cleavages can generate a visceral emotional response; they override people’s concern for democracy and human rights.

Prime Minister K P Oli is dragging Nepal towards a path of democratic backsliding. This process is putting a strain on the prospect of economic development. Suffice it to say, the Nepali people are part and parcel of this reversal. Voters who claim to prefer democracy often vote for regimes that undermine democratic norms and restrain freedoms.

This behaviour raises a question about why and under what conditions Nepali voters support political leaders who undermine democracy. An essential lesson from world history is that to stop democratic backsliding, Nepal must find ways to repair the existing social and political cleavages.

Democratic backsliding

Within the last year, the civil society had to hit the streets several times to protest against attempts by the government at tighter legislations. The government has pushed through a series of legislations and policies that contradict the constitution, centralise power, and curtail the freedoms and rights of the people. Many of these instances are now well documented and discussed.

The ruling regime, which has a strong communist identity, time and again has displayed its liking for political control. The move has been complemented by an entrenched cultural ideology—as well as vested incentives and interests—in the bureaucracy.

Just recently, an Amnesty International report, outlined how government actions, including amendments and the drafting of new legislation, were attacking the freedoms enjoyed by the people.

In a recent journal article, Yale University Professor Milan W Svolik tries to answer why voters who claim to support democracy often vote for political leaders who subvert democracy. From 1973 until 2018, Svolik identified about 197 instances of democratic reversals. Of those, about 88 were executive takeovers by popularly elected leaders.

Executive takeovers are carried out gradually by popularly elected leaders through legislative and constitutional changes. Over time, the executive has complete political control over other branches, including the legislative and the judiciary. Some of these regimes, despite authoritarian traits, can still be popular.

Svolik’s description of democratic reversals provides an eerie resemblance to what is happening in Nepal at the moment. What can explain the popular support for regimes that contradict democratic norms? According to Svolik, when forced to make a choice, ordinary people prefer authoritarian regimes that represent their partisan interests over democratic principles.

Social cleavages

Deep social cleavages polarise society into antagonistic identity groups. When forced to make a choice, people vote for authoritarian regimes that resonate their emotions while punishing democratic forces that do not address their partisan preferences.

In the 2013 election, the Maoists asked the voters, especially the hill Brahmins and Chhetris, to sacrifice their nationalism for the sake of the marginalised communities and indigenous nationalities. The move resulted in an embarrassing defeat for the Maoists.

In the 2017 elections, the most significant factor deciding the polls turned out to be India’ economic blockade, which generated a wave of nationalist sentiments against the southern neighbour. Many people who considered themselves committed to democracy chose to vote for the more ‘nationalist’ communist alliance.

While the Nepali Congress was more democratic, it was perceived to be weak on the issue of ‘nationalism’, mainly when it came to resisting the influence of India, the Madhes movement and the Janajatis.

As long as social cleavages exist, they will drive the politics of identity. Since social divisions can generate a visceral emotional response, they can override people’s concern for democracy and human rights. So it is possible, as has happened in many countries around the world, for people to choose a leadership that will continue to restrict democracy from within the democratic system.

What next?

The process of de-democratisation symbolised by Oli is likely to continue even after the next round of elections. As elections in Poland showed a couple of months ago, voters may continue to support undemocratic rulers for the sake of economic development. In Nepal’s case, the merger between the two largest communist parties has significantly altered Nepal’s electoral landscape, while the primary opposition, the Nepali Congress is yet to find its feet and regain support.

As of now, the most apparent cleavages that divide the people are class (rich versus poor), nationalism (Madheshi/Janajati versus the hill Brahmins and Chhetris), foreign relations (India and the West versus China), religion (secularism versus Hinduism), and good governance (the corrupt versus the clean). These are severe divides and require long-term solutions.

External actors, particularly India, China and the US have played a role in shaping Nepal’s domestic political affairs and identities. Non-democratic forces will have an interest in continuing the democratic reversal, in so far as it can serve vested interests. However, if Nepal is to correct its political course, then we must invest more energy on addressing the existing social cleavages.

Although it may be near impossible to address the existing divides, their influence in the next round of elections has to be reduced. Otherwise, we will continue to democratically elect a leadership that will cash in on our emotional needs, yet be detrimental for our freedom, democracy and development.

This article was first published in The Kathmandu Post on February 3, 2020.

Author: Ajaya Bhadra Khanal

Photo: Pixabay

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