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While a debate on the best form of government for Nepal is going on, senior political scientist Prof. Lok Raj Baral has proposed that the French system of government could be discussed as a suitable model. A recent paper prepared by Baral — and discussed at a combined forum of the Society for Constitutional and Parliamentary Exercises (SCOPE) and the Constituent Assembly (CA) Committee on the Determination of the Form of Government — explores what Nepal needs after democratic experiments through all these years in the parliamentary form of government.
Discussing some key characteristics of the French system as developed under the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, Baral suggests that the model has potential to address Nepal's recurring problem of instability and that it also seems to be compatible with Nepal's other on-the-ground situations. Also described as being midway between the American presidential government and the British cabinet system, the most distinctive feature of the French model is the division of executive power between the president and the government headed by the prime minister. In this system, the president is directly elected by the people, but the prime minister comes from the majority party in parliament. The issue here is whether the model proposed by Baral could be a viable model
As one can see, the French model insists on the parliamentary character of the system, but does not make secret its determination to check abuse of parliamentary democracy, generally keeping the president out of parliament's clutches, which had cursed republican France with dictatorship and/or chronic governmental instability for many decades before the promulgation of the present constitution. For example, under the Constitution of the Fourth Republic (1946-1948) governments had lasted an average of six months only.
Many analysts and leaders including General Charles de Gaulle, who ruled France from 1959 to 1969, agreed that their governments before the promulgation of the present constitution were overthrown with distressing regularity mostly because they were accountable to a fickle parliament. Under the present arrangement, political parties holding sway in parliament, who by their very nature represent particular interests rather than the general interest of the country, cannot destabilise the president — the number one executive — who is said to be responsible for making decisions in the area of "high" politics, such as foreign affairs, defence, statecraft and crisis decision-making.
The role of the prime minister, who is accountable to parliament, is not that crucial because he is responsible for making decisions in the area of "low" politics only, such as domestic policy, the budget and routine decision-making. His power is carefully hedged with a number of constitutional provisions intended to protect governmental stability and thereby to ensure the capacity of the government to act when action — especially unpopular action — is called for. Arguably, any instability (in France) at this stage cannot affect the overall issue of governmental firmness and efficiency.
This arrangement brought together a compelling presidential position with manifold executive powers and a parliamentary executive (prime minister) responsible before the elected house. The president's task was primarily to end any deadlock and act decisively to avoid the stagnation prevalent under the Constitution of the Fourth Republic. The prime minister, similarly, was to direct the work of the government, providing a strong leadership to the legislative branch and help overcome partisan squabbles.
The scheme also had the potential to produce some unintended relationships, usually described as "cohabitation" in government. It occurs when the president is from a different party than the majority party in parliament. It comes about because such a system forces the president to name a prime minister acceptable to the majority within parliament. Such cohabitation is supposed to prevent the stagnation of split majorities that can frequently occur in presidential systems.
There are important implications of this model in the typical Nepalese context. Even in France, from charismatic General Charles de Gaulle to the current President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was elected two years ago on a very divisive political platform, neither the patterns of power relationships that are being described nor the political impact of the sort have been consistent. This was true during the tenure of all the eight presidents who ruled France with their prime ministers approved by the house.
During the last 50 years, France experimented with different types of governments, although theoretically the constitutional form was the same. There is hardly any disagreement on the analysis that there was a shift from, say, segmented government from 1959 to 1962 to monocratic presidential government from 1962 to 1976. The first situation demonstrates sectoral division of labour within the executive in which responsibility for one set of matters is incumbent upon one person and responsibility for another set of matters is incumbent upon another person. The second situation is all about the exercise of personal leadership by a single individual.
This is not all. A further shift to shared government from 1976 to 1981 was also noted. Then a shift back to monocratic presidential government from 1981 to 1984, to a return to segmented government from 1986 and then a further shift to monocratic prime ministerial government from 1986 to 1988 was also noted. It goes on. These shifts are remarkable by any standard but bizarre and heretical in Nepal's political scenario. There are administrative implications of this strange constitutional "hybrid" or "duarchy". Besides, this model has different implications for the first executive (the president) in his relations with parliament.
This major issue apart, the cohabitation experience in 1986 during the tenure of President Francois Mitterrand (1981-95), for example, and similar other experiences have led many to argue that a majority opposed to the president is somehow contrary to the spirit of the Fifth Republic. Mitterrand worked with seven prime ministers with a variety of experiences. The two further "cohabitations" of 1993 and 1995 and 1997-2002 also suggested that the primacy of the president, or what some French political analysts describe as "republican monarchy", could no longer be taken on the normal institutional practice.
In 1964, Francois Mitterrand launched a famous denunciation against General de Gaulle called the permanent coup d'état. After 42 years, during the electoral campaign in 2006, Nicolas Sarkozy, at that time the interior minister, was quoted for his commitment against the unitary executive, and his intention to expand the powers of the French president, were he to occupy that office. There are many positions. But the possibility of cohabitation in the future is said to be remote.
While discussing France as a model, one also needs to consider the fortune of a legislature in the new (non-parliamentary) set up. Some additional questions are: Can a president who wields power in the area of "high" politics give the feeling of an emotionally united head of state? Is it possible for a directly elected head of state to remain non-partisan in a country with so many socio-political and ethnic cleavages? These questions come up unhesitatingly in a country whose parliamentary template has already grown discernible patterns over the last six decades.
Apparently, this critique has not focussed on the strengths of Prof. Baral's propositions. This must be done both within and without the CA at a more serious level. In that case, one must also consider how a decision about the choice of the form of government can be made in a country where constitutions come and go, not in the exercise of legitimate process but enforced hiatus and geopolitical machinations. This aspect of Nepal's democratic experiment is definitely not a secret anymore.