Saturday, August 18, 2007

When clubs become trumps

By Dr Hari Bansha Dulal & Stefano Foa

Simmering ethnic dissent, the erratic and disruptive activities of Youth Communist League, and increasing uncertainty about the constituent assembly elections, are raising justified fears for the future of Nepal. Should November elections be postponed again, both the current government and the interim parliament will face a dangerous legitimacy crisis. The coalition may be able to muddle through for a while. After that, nothing should be excluded.

One scenario that is already being discussed is a resumption of the Maoist insurgency, led by dissident factions in the party leadership. The mandate of the 2006 April revolution was to establish peace through elections, by encouraging warring parties to lay down their arms, replace the exchange of bullets for ballots, and join their forces under a unified military command. Once the Maoist cadres realize the vote is cancelled for the second time, their dreams of joining the Nepali Army will be shattered. Several of their factions are ready to resume the fight.

A further possibility is that of direct military stewardship over the political process. Until now, the Nepali military has largely limited itself to its 'praetorian' role - that is, as protector of the monarch - but now the king is a mere ceremonial accessory. This makes the army itself the government of last resort. In this respect Nepal could very easily follow the example of modern Pakistan, Bangladesh and Thailand, where sporadic military guardianship has become the norm, and their experience suggests that once the army is politically engaged, it tends to retain an indefinite presence.

So under what circumstances do military interventions take place, and is Nepal a candidate?

Samuel Huntington, the Harvard political scientist, has distinguished between three types of military coup. The first is the 'breakthrough coup', when a revolutionary army displaces a traditional monarchy. This occurred in a number of decolonized countries during the 1950s, such as Egypt or Libya, but has since been comparatively rare.

The second kind is the 'veto coup', when the military takes power from a popular, democratically elected government. This has frequently been the case in Latin America - the most recent attempt being the failed putsch against Chavez in 2002 - but is less common in regions which lack a tradition of class politics, and unknown in South Asia.

Finally, there is the 'guardian coup', whereby the military steps in with the goal of restoring public order, reducing corruption, or fighting insurgents. This is by far the most common form of military intervention, and that familiar to the Indian subcontinent. And it is the prospect that faces Nepal, if the current transition process fails.

A number of factors expose Nepal to this possibility. First, whereas in veto coups the military steps in because citizens are 'excessively' involved in politics, guardian coups are preceded by civilian disillusionment and withdrawal from political life. In Pakistan, for example, the inter-party feuding, corruption, economic stagnation, and insecurity of Bhutto and Sharif years had already led to widespread political disengagement once Musharraf assumed power in 1999.

In 2001, according to data collected by the World Values Surveys, a global study of social attitudes and behavior, only 13 percent of Pakistanis said they had or would be willing to take part in a demonstration for a cause they believed in, compared to 52 percent of Indians.

In Bangladesh, the 'musical chair' politics of Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed have led to a similar sense of political disengagement, and most felt only weary fatigue when emergency law was declared earlier this year. After seventeen years of turmoil, the Nepalis too, are experiencing transition fatigue.

According to a survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, almost two-thirds of Nepalis said they would most prefer a strong leader who did not have to bother with parliament or elections. The civic foundations for democratic transition have worn dangerously thin.

Second, guardian coups are far more likely when ethnic fragmentation and violence have made consensus impossible between electoral blocs, and the parties they support.

In both Pakistan and Bangladesh, inter-group relations deteriorated steadily in the period preceding military intervention, as elected politicians swam the tide of ethnic and religious factionalism. As evidence of this steady drift, in Bangladesh, the proportion of those polled would refuse to have neighbors 'of another race' grew from 17 percent in 1996 to 28 percent in 2002, while the proportion refusing to have those 'of another religion' jumped from 13 to 34 percent.

Sectarian violence was one of the main factors that the Bangladeshi military used to justify their recent takeover. Alas, Nepal may be on much the same trajectory. 18 percent of Nepalis now claim they would not accept a neighbor of another race, and a fifth would refuse a neighbor of another religion, according to data collected recently on behalf of Civicus, the international civil society network.

This combination of group-mobilized violence and civic withdrawal justify and make possible the guardian coup. Pakistan and Bangladesh are cases in point, and Nepal is indeed at risk of joining them. The long-term consequences of this would be grave. It is unlikely the military would extract itself from politics for a generation or more.

So what is to be done to avoid this outcome?

First, our representatives must learn to hang together, if they are not to hang separately. In South Asia politicians frequently talk about the need for democracy when they are out of power, yet once back in office 'play to the gallery' by indulging in partisan politics, thereby neglecting the process of consensus building.

As the Nepalis have seen only too clearly, this not only deepens social cleavages, but it erodes the legitimacy of the democratic process. India managed to avoid this fate by achieving democratic consolidation under a single dominant party, but Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal have now lost that possibility. So our parties must learn to govern together, if they are to govern at all.

Second, the rule of law must be restored. Nobody wishes to be governed militarily, but they do wish to be governed. The most basic function of the state is the protection of life and land, and when civilian leaders cannot ensure due process, the army becomes the de facto government of last resort.

Third, civilian power must be wielded legitimately. Above all, that means having free and fair elections, capable of producing viable governing coalitions. For that to occur in Nepal, the November elections for the constituent assembly must take place, and they must produce credible results. Should these elections be cancelled, or the polls become marred by violence and intimidation, then the transition risks derailing and no further possibility can be ruled out.

That includes some form of military intervention. For as English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote many centuries ago, in the game of politics, when nothing else is turned up, clubs are trumps.

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