‘Populist Decisions’ Under Fire?
Ritu Raj Subedi
Amidst the apprehension that federalism can be a white elephant for the impoverished nation, it is also at the risk of plunging into fiscal anarchy before the new government takes the helm of power. Now the caretaker government is running the gauntlet for taking a series of populist decisions having long-term implications. They have triggered political, constitutional and moral questions. The Left Alliance that is set to form a new government has termed them as nefarious measures taken to foil both economy and federalism by creating big liability for it. Politically, the caretaker government is not supposed to make decisions that carry far-reaching policy impacts and put economic burden on the new administration. This is a universal practice. If the caretaker government takes such decisions, this will not only set bad precedence but also erode democratic and ethical ground of politics. Functional democracy requires that all parties embrace basic constitutional norms and behaviour so as to steer the nation through normal political course.
Germany is a fitting example to shed light on the role of a caretaker government at the moment. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been leading a provisional government since September. As her party failed to garner majority seats in the recent federal election, she has been unable to form government and unveil the budget. Germany’s fiscal year ends in December. Now all economic and development activities have come to a halt in the country for lack of annual budget. She is now in hectic negotiations with many political parties, including the Social Democratic Party to constitute the new coalition government. She said she would not announce budget until there was a majority government to approve it. She has put the announcement of policy, programmes and development plans on the backburner. This is a good instance of parliamentary democracy based on democratic values and principles.
The government’s decision to reduce the age cap from 70 to 65 yearsfor getting the old age allowance has caused a sea of controversy. Although it appears to be a popular decision, many have not commended it on rational ground. Life expectancy of Nepal is now 69 years and it is going to jump to 71 years in the near future. The life expectancy is considered as the basic criteria for setting the age ceiling of the people entitled to enjoy the old age allowance. At the age of 65, the people are not generally frail and feeble. They can be physically active, and providing them old age allowances may turn them docile and lazy. It is estimated that the new government has to cough up an additional Rs 25 billion for old age allowance under the new criteria of age. In its poll manifesto, the Left Alliance had promised that it would increase the elderly allowance from current Rs 2,000to 5,000 if it formed the new government. The government’s decision seems to hijack the populist agenda of the communists to win the hearts of more voters in the next election.
The NC that had suffered a humiliating defeat in the three-tier elections has developed a psychology that the communists swept the poll victory largely on the back of their populist agenda. But it is only a partial truth. It is true that the first minority communist government under late ManamohanAdhikary started distributing Rs 100in elderly allowance to the people above 75 years. Of course, this decision gave political leverage to the CPN-UMLin the ensuing elections. But behind this decision lay a political factor, not the desire to be populist in the masses. During the 1991 general election campaign, some NC functionaries had spread the propaganda that the communists would slay the people aged 60 when they reachedpower. This rumour had discredited the lefts among the old people. In order to refute this allegation, former PM ManamohanAdhikary decided to provide allowance to the senior citizens.Interestingly, this small step endeared Adhikary and his party to senior citizens across the country, delivering an unexpected windfall to the party in the polls.
But it is a false perception that the Left Alliance’s pledge to increase old age allowance handed it a thumping victory. This time there were other substantial political, economic and geopolitical elements that determined the outcomes of the historic elections. The Left Alliance fought election on the plank of nationalism, stability and prosperity. The voters punished the NC for its utter underestimate of nationalist sentiments that Nepali people demonstrated in the wake of stifling Indian blockade in 2015. There are other philosophical reasons that alienated the NC from the masses. The party totally divorced from the vision of social welfare after it succumbed to Washington Consensus and freewheeling market since 1990. Its neo-liberal policies led to the collapse of public institutions and enterprises, destroying the national economy. Today health and education is beyond the reach of commoners. The people have lost faith that the NC will apply welfare state policies. For many, it is like ‘pigs flying’ if the NC brings socialistic policies and programmes.
When the caretaker government announced one after anothersocial welfare scheme, many were taken aback. It first decided to provideRs 5,000 as monthly allowance to the patients with kidney failure and spinal injury and those suffering from cancer. The government has to fork out an additional Rs 2 billion to implement this scheme. In yet another populist decision, it decided to provide additional Rs 100,000 to each earthquake victims. It hasadded around Rs 80 billion burden on the national treasury. These decisions are good but lack legal grounds. A government that lost people’s mandate can’t announce such popular programmes. Opposition leader KP Sharma Oli, who has been tipped as a new PM, has vowed to repel its unconstitutional decisions. He claimed that the government took such decisions with mala fide intention to gain cheap popularity. Meanwhile, officials at the Finance Ministry have termed these decisions ‘political stunts’ and are unlikely to be implemented in the current fiscal year as no budget has been allocated for them.