Mind over matter  


The Constituent Assembly still has 75 outstanding issues waiting for political consensus before the new constitution can begin to take a concrete shape. One of them, and by far the most contentious one, is the form of government. It is likely that Nepal will choose a system of government that the majority of people do not like, due to the current political dynamics.

Philosophers have debated structures and institutions for ages. Deontologists like Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant have emphasized right institutions for justice and progress. On the other hand, consequentialists like Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mills have insisted on desirable social outcomes. Consciously or unconsciously, Nepal’s political parties have been giving continuity to that debate by haggling over the form of government.

After a willful neglect by all political parties, constitution writing has now gone mainstream, prodded by the Supreme Court verdict that the Constituent Assembly cannot extend its term anymore. It was one of the boldest decisions the Court took after unnecessary and unconstitutional flip-flops. The Court should have followed the constitutional route right from the start, but it has finally realized that the judicial concession given to the Assembly to extend its own term not only made a mockery of the Interim Constitution but also did not deliver a new constitution. 

The court decision has injected some sense of urgency into the political parties that wasted most of their time fighting for the chair rather than writing the constitution that was the raison d’être of the Assembly. As the system of government has proved to be one of the tough nuts to crack, the Assembly has asked the senior leaders to resolve it at the highest political level.

Irrespective of the form of government, the debate on institutions and approach for justice and progress will continue. However, it´ll be helpful if we view structures as means, not as the final end that cannot be changed.

As we know, each of the three largest parties in the Assembly—the Maoists, Nepali Congress and UML—has been pushing a different model of government. Whether driven by personal goal or public interest, each party contends that the system of government it has proposed is the right one to create a new Nepal, of course, in their own vision. And each believes that its model would produce desirable political and social outcomes. 

The Maoists are adamant in their demand for a presidential system in which the head of state also enjoys executive powers, such as in the US, North Korea, Cuba, Sri Lanka, etc. On the other hand, the Nepali Congress wants the parliamentary system of government in which the prime minister—the leader of the majority in the parliament—exercises executive power and a titular president becomes head of state, as in Great Britain, India, Bangladesh, etc. The UML wants a mixed system in which executive powers are divided between the president and prime minister, as in France, Pakistan, Russia, etc.

All three systems come with their advantages and disadvantages. Briefly speaking, the presidential system provides relative political stability but can be subject to excesses from ambitious incumbents. If you put the president in a constitutional straitjacket, s/he becomes weak and ineffective; if you do not, s/he turns dictatorial. 

While the presidential system has been a success in the US and has turned the corner in Brazil, Mexico and a handful of other countries, it has been a mess in countries like North Korea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Belarus, Egypt, Yemen, and several other countries. So much so, the Kims in North Korea and the Castros in Cuba have established their family rule. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and several others have abused their power to remain in power and stifled opposition and evolution of democracy. 

The parliamentary system usually offers better checks and balances within the parliament but is prone to excessive instability in immature democracies. But the ruling party could be reckless if it has wide enough majority in the parliament to amend the constitution. This system has been a success in several Commonwealth countries like the UN, Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand, and several other European countries and Japan. But it has a checkered record in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and other Commonwealth countries in the Third World. 

Compared to the previous two, few countries have embraced the mixed system. In this system, while the president offers stability, the parliament makes laws and checks the president. However, this system pits two principals trying to protect and expand their turf against each other creating constant tension, friction and gridlock. The only country that has been an unqualified success with this system is France. Russia has remained an enigma, and China is in this system only tangentially. Sri Lanka before, Pakistan now and several Francophone African countries that have adopted this system have been far from inspiring. 

No human agency is flawless. As the scorecard above shows, none of the three systems is perfect. Nepal will have to choose one of these flawed systems in the new constitution. Recent experience suggests that the UML would win this race with its mixed system unless external persuasion and pressure changes the political tide. Like it catapulted Madhav Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal to premiership despite their party being the third largest in the Constituent Assembly, the same reason is likely to make the mixed system the default option. Both the Maoists and Nepali Congress, vehemently opposed to each other’s proposal, could accept the mixed system for the sake of compromise, as the second best option for each of them. 

That seems like a winning UML gambit. However, I personally favor the parliamentary system, not necessarily because it is better than others, but because Nepal has known and practiced this system for two decades and can hit the ground running once the constitution is promulgated. But even if any other form of government is embraced, the sky will not fall. 

I am rather worried about the fact that it will take years for the country to learn the new ropes and master the new system. While the rest of the world is galloping on the path of progress, it will be a terrible waste of time and resources for Nepal to take the baby steps of experimenting with yet another new system and spending another two decades just trying to figure out how to make it work before learning to walk and catching up with others. Nepal has already wasted so much time in political experiments; it cannot afford more of them. 

No matter which form of government Nepal selects, the debate about the right institutions and approach for justice and progress will continue. However, it will help us take a decision if we view structures as means, not as the end, that can be changed when necessary, as Sri Lanka has done a couple of times, and Pakistan has done recently, by switching between the parliamentary and presidential systems. The will and commitment of the people operating the system matters more in making the system work and deliver than the structures.

Published on 2012-01-11 01:10:11

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