Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground.
A long-standing international question as to whether communism can reform itself to coexist with democracy has resurfaced with the emergence of the Himalayan state of Nepal as the world’s sixth communist-ruled country. Unlike the other communist states − China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam − Nepal’s new government was elected in free and fair elections.
Communist parties across the world have gained power mostly by violent means. The Soviet communist system, established following two violent revolutions in 1917, lasted 74 years − the longest any autocracy has survived in modern history. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in power for almost 69 years, has created a Leninist one-party state that appears set to surpass the Soviet longevity record.
Communist rule in China was built with blood − from the Red Army’s violent march to victory to subsequent decades of fratricidal killings. Millions of Chinese died in political witch-hunts, man-made disasters and other state-sponsored actions.
The pro-China Nepalese communists’ peaceful ascension to power helps to obscure a violent past. Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, as a communist guerrilla, spent years in jail in the 1970s and 1980s for waging war against the state. Nepal’s 1990 establishment of multiparty democracy within the framework of a constitutional monarchy opened up legitimate political space for all groups, including the Maoists and Mr. Oli’s Marxist-Leninist Party. The Maoists launched a bloody insurrection in 1996 with the aim of overthrowing the monarchy through a “people’s revolution.”
A decade later, a peace accord ended a protracted war between Maoists and government forces. India, whose coalition government at that time was dependent on the support of local communists with links to Nepalese communists, engineered not only the peace but also the abolition of the constitutional monarchy.
These developments paved the way for the Maoists and the Marxist-Leninist Party to share power with the Nepali Congress Party, dominant until then. In 2008, the Maoist chief was appointed prime minister, the first of a series of communists to head coalition governments. Severe political flux resulted in governments changing 10 times in the past decade, a period in which the two communist parties rapidly expanded their political base before sweeping the last elections.
Today, the Nepali Communist Party, formed with the merger of the communist groups, casts a long, ominous shadow over the country’s politics: It has almost two-thirds majority in Parliament and governments in six of the country’s seven provinces. Such domination raises serious risks for Nepal’s sputtering democratic transition, which has been buffeted by one crisis after another.
There are portentous parallels with another country that came under communist sway through largely peaceful but uncommon means centred on a creeping approach exploiting democratic methods − Czechoslovakia after the Second World War.
Just as national elections in Czechoslovakia in 1946 resulted in leftist and communist parties securing significant representation in the new constituent assembly and then gradually dictating terms, the 2007-initiated constituent assembly process in Nepal helped communists to gain power and leave their imprint on the new constitution that took effect in 2015.
And just as U.S. missteps, including terminating a large loan to Czechoslovakia, triggered a backlash that boosted popular support for communists, Indian blunders helped empower communists in Nepal, undermining India’s own close relations with that country.
To gain political ground in the lead-up to the most recent elections, the Nepalese communists played the nationalist card, including whetting a deep-seated suspicion about India’s intentions, in ways redolent of how the Czechoslovak communists whipped up anti-U.S. sentiment and drove out other coalition partners from the government. By 1948, the Czechoslovak communists gained full control of the government.
No less important is the fact that, just as the Soviet Union aided the Czechoslovak communists’ march to victory, China has helped out the Nepalese communists.
Now, Nepal has emerged as a test case for whether democracy can survive under communist rule. Can communism become democratic? Or is there an inherent contradiction between communism and democracy?
One cannot ignore the fundamental divergences: Democracy enshrines and enhances individual rights and freedoms, while communism erodes and smothers them. Democracy is pluralistic, whereas communism in practice tends to be monopolistic and authoritarian.
Western hope that democracy would follow capitalism into communist states has been dashed. Fusing market capitalism with a one-party state, China has created its own model of authoritarian capitalism, which Vietnam and Laos have embraced and Cuba and North Korea are willing to adopt if the U.S. lifts sanctions against them. The CCP views democracy as China’s biggest threat.
Against this background, can Nepal be an exception? It is too early to determine but initial signs are not encouraging. Mr. Oli has already started undermining the independence of Nepal’s institutions and stacking them with his own loyalists. If the assault on institutions continues, Nepal will be emulating the trajectory of how Czechoslovakia turned into a single-party state.
Nepal’s tenuous democracy has also come under pressure from ethnic fault lines that constitution-writing political machinations helped stoke. The new constitution reflects the will of the hill elites that have long dominated Nepal’s power structure. Its enactment has fuelled discontent and unrest in the south among the plains people, some of whom wish to secede.
Czechoslovakia survived dismemberment by the Nazis and 41 years of communist rule only to split under democracy. In Nepal, communist domination will likely increase southern alienation.
Make no mistake: Nepal’s very future is at stake.