Democracy Slips Into Elective Despotism

Mukti Rijal

It is indeed very positive to note that Nepal has almost completed two years since the constitution of Nepal was promulgated in September 20, 2015. The constitution led Nepal into becoming the foremost and youngest democratic republic of the twenty-first century through abolition of hereditary monarchy. This is no small political development in the contemporary world. And a very few countries have the distinction or the privilege to admit into this category of nations. Furthermore, the country has joined in the league of the federal nations which is another categorical political development in transforming Nepal from a centralised unitary to the federal nation.

Comparative terms
Needless to say, a democratic republic is privileged political status for a country. Such a country is studied well through comparative terms and angle. And its political institutions become the subject of deeper political analysis in the country and abroad. Nepal can be included into the Forum of Federations – a platform in which the leaders and scholars from federal countries in particular meet and discuss the issues confronted and lessons learnt in the course of implementation of federalism. Today’s world many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America are republic. But they may not be democratic in the correct sense of the term. They are either dictatorships or quasi-dictatorships or theocratic regimes in broader terms. They may claim to be democratic, and may have some of the democratic trappings and features in their polity.
But they are not essentially democratic. These countries may not have healthy and sound democratic institutions and possess no other essential attributes that a democratic country is supposed to be endowed with. The democratic features and attributes include fair democratic elections, and free and independent press, independent judiciary and respect for fundamental human rights and so on. In many nations, power transfer through fair and democratic elections is very difficult to happen. The latest developments in some of the African and the Asian nations attest to it. Kenya has been the latest example where the elections were annulled because the ruling president was alleged of defrauding and manipulating the elections. The democratic institutions that have been well incorporated in Nepal’s new constitution have been the free and vibrant press, independent judiciary and democratically elected government and so on.
Democracy indeed connotes the rule of the people, for the people and by the people as was aptly defined by 19th century US president Abraham Lincoln. A democracy can be direct type and representative type. Especially in the representative type of democracy like in Great Britain, India and Nepal, decisions are taken by the representative elected by majority votes.
Sometimes, the majority power can behave as if it was absolute and unlimited. The majority power can become excessive and abuse its authority that can jeopardize the inalienable rights of citizens. It will be relevant here to quote Thomas Jefferson, who was among the chief architects of the US constitution, said “an elected despotism was not the government we fought for”. In indicates that the majority power can oftentimes turn into elected despotism.
Nepal’s new democratic republic constitution, as mentioned above, was enacted by the Constituent Assembly elected by the people. The CA included and represented the people from all walks and strata of the national life. The assembly had mirrored the diversity, plurality and complexity of the country. In fact, when democracy is compounded with republic, it connotes a government where most decisions are made with reference to established laws rather than the discretion of the head of the state. It is due to this reason that the republic is incompatible to the notion of hereditary monarchy. Republic is thus closer to the concept of limited, constitutional and inclusive government. The notion of republic underpins a constitutionally limited government created by a written constitution with its powers divided between three separate branches: executive, legislative and judiciary.
Conceptually, the notion of republic is also wedded to the principle of separation of powers with strong provisions of checks and balances. It is premised that the people form the republic form of the government and grant government the only just powers, limited powers primarily in order to secure their inalienable rights. It is often said that the republic bars “the snob rule of a governing elite and the mob rule of the omnipotent majority.” Both in principles and practice, a democratic republic presupposes the institutionalisation of limited constitutional governance in which citizens are sovereign and also the fountainhead of the state power.

Democratic rights
Moreover, excessive power of the state organs is therefore needed to be checked and balanced to secure, promote and protect the democratic rights and freedoms of the citizens. As stated earlier, Nepal‘s new democratic constitution enshrines the principles of the democratic governance. However, it should be mentioned that a democratic republic is not merely a theoretical concept that is written in the piece of paper. It matters truly only if the rulers and citizens free up themselves from the practices and despotic mindset. Again to refer to Thomas Jefferson who had said that one despot in the form of hereditary monarch can be more tolerable than many legislative despots who fail to follow the behaviour and orientation befitting to a democratic republic. In case of Nepal and many other new democracies the basic problem lies in the political leadership. The leadership fails to grasp the essence of democratic behaviour and orientation as a result of which several problems and issues do crop up. And when working patter, temperament and orientation of political leaders and governing elite are not compatible with the values and norms of the democratic republic functional legitimacy and credibility of the system can be questioned.

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