From Brexit and Trump shocks through the Hungarian and Indian elections to the Korean and French elections, populism has claimed enormous press contemplation and popular interest. From growing support for long-standing anti-immigrant parties in Europe, anti-capitalism populist parties in Latin America and ultra-nationalist or hyper-nationalist parties in most of the world, it can be deeply felt that at the present moment, we are stricken by the call for centralization by newly rising demagogues all over the globe. The advocacy of such politics has been flourishing in Nepal, for the national political parties have been dealing with bewilderment, anarchy and knavery.
It is incontrovertible that populism is an umbrella school of thought of state-centrism, nay the modern variant of centralized idea of governance. For instance, the “Le Pen”-ian notion of France, the AFD’s idea of Germany, “Duterte”-ian idea of Philippines, RSS’s idea of India, “Trump”-ian notion of US and so on, all demand three basic things: the decay of institutions, demarcation of who belongs and does not in the polity and erosion of informal democratic norms. The idea of decentralization is an absolute antithesis of it, for decentralization is the convergence of third sector and the nation-state in governance, such as grass root organizations, private domain, market and so on.
Among other things, the 2015 Nepalese Constitution was itself designed as a countermeasure to rising tides of populism. The seven-party alliance, which concluded the 2nd People’s Revolution in Nepal, had certainly built a broad coalition to cooperate with other elites and to exclude the anti-democratic forces from the status quo. This was the primogenitor of idea of decentralization, nay the dissemination of power from ‘bureaucratic elites’ to the ‘society’ itself. The people’s uprising in 2006 also brought new challenges to the existing system in the sources of authority, their purposes to serve the people and mechanisms for constituting the government. Hence, the emergence of local government, as opposed to the previous local units, can be seen as a dynamic process to equalize power and authority. As such, the constitutional assembly justly built an all-embracing unanimity, which was later conscripted to be the constitution, for the separate needs and demands at the bottom level, by inducing the necessity of formal and informal institutions as development partners and disintegrating centripetal pocket of power into centrifugal apparatus. This was a transition from government to governance – that is, state centered to society directed.
However, the spirit of the constitution is being eroded as the populists discredit the status quo, the democratic architecture and the state mechanisms, and even question its existence.
It is because the socio-political transition, which was a quid pro quo, however, is without flaws. First, the capacity at the bottom layer is weak in formulating inclusive schemes and materializing them, which is precisely for the relatively unskilled and reluctant bureaucratic staff at that layer. Secondly, the collaboration among entities of distinct layers of government is amateurish, in terms of planning and execution; this is for the failure of mainstream parties in building a consensus for shared idea of governance. Thirdly, the extent of public participation has not been adequate, also for the weak performance of local governments. These shortcomings have, ultimately, led to the emergence of void between the nation-state and the people; as a result, a consensus is being ratified to disrupt and overthrow the so called ‘corrupt status quo’ or ‘self-serving elite cartel’. In fact, this narrative was deeply felt within two years of making of the constitution in local elections; however, in the local elections this year, it has been more coherent. Therefore, such consensus has given rise to the populists, and they have been escalating smoothly to the top of the political pyramid.
In today’s local elections, the legitimacy on which the undemocratic, anti-party rabble-rousers, who tend to discredit, disdain and openly disparage the state mechanisms, stand is precisely structured on the solidarity on the recital that the democratic architecture, such as courts, legislatures, regulatory agencies, and oversight, of the state are unnecessary and perverse establishments of corrupt and self-serving elites. They have defined themselves independent of any ideological dogma or elite cartel (that is, political party), which is appealing for the frustrated general masses. However, they do not yet represent the ‘general will’, as they call it, incisively for their call for exclusion of all masses associated with any political party or any ideology. Moreover, their screech of historical grievances, such as the notion of ‘Kathmandu Civilization’, the significance of ‘Dhungedharas’, and so on, rarifies their legitimacy to the conservative masses on the prime.
Therefore, the two-fold spirit of the Constitution of Nepal – that are, maximum representation and society directed nation-state – has been challenged by the tides of populism. As such it poses three-fold threats to our democracy – that are, erosion of formal institutions, exclusionary notion of formation of polity and excavation of informal and ethical democratic norms. The result is an imperceptible slide towards illiberal autocracy, where each move is justified by the requisite to exclude the ‘corrupt scoundrels’.