The declining confidence in public institutionsLeaders making promises that they cannot keep is a significant reason for the increased mistrust.
Two recent incidents have helped to spread mistrust among the people towards the government and public institutions. For the last two weeks, social media has been abuzz with talks about the detention of TV journalist Rabi Lamichhane in connection with investigations into the death of another TV journalist, Shalikaram Pudasaini. Also, more than a year—and several inquiry committees—later, the state is nowhere close to finding the perpetrators in the Nirmala rape and murder case.
Some might argue that the people's participation in the elections reflects their trust, and interpret it as a belief in the system and political parties. If that is the case, the two-thirds majority government should have received tremendous support when attempting to implement their policies. But public confidence in the government, bureaucracy, Parliament, judiciary, and the police has declined. In the past, this kind of cynicism was seen mostly towards an individual or particular team. But now it is extending to public institutions, which is something that worries many people. An erosion of confidence in major institutions is a far more severe threat to democracy than a loss of trust in other citizens or politicians. So, why are people not trusting the government and public institutions?
Vying for personal benefit
The country's current political and socio-economic situation is a result of the combination of crony capitalism, comprador capitalism and rent-seeking behaviour. In crony capitalism, success in business depends on close relationships between businesspersons and government officials. The export of raw materials that foreign interests covet, and importing back manufactured goods to sell to locals instead of developing the local industry is one example of comprador capitalism. Rent-seeking is an individual or company's use of resources to get economic gain without giving back any benefits to society. It is an attempt to obtain economic rent for themselves through the political arena.
We are experiencing all these characteristics at the same time. Political leaders and high-ranking bureaucrats act as if they have been entrusted with state powers for their benefit. So there is rampant corruption, which destroys the very fabric of society. It undermines people's trust in the political system, in its institutions and its leadership.
Another reason for the increasing mistrust is that leaders make promises that they cannot keep. No thought is given on how they are going to fulfil their pledges. People were very excited after the unification of the two largest communist parties and provided a clear mandate for governance. Until then, everyone used to blame political instability for the slow rate of development. The new stable government had raised the people's hope, but they have not witnessed any tangible, positive change. Besides, there is a consistent lack of transparency and accountability for the decisions, actions and utilisation of taxpayer money. Political appointments primarily suffer from nepotism and favouritism. Hence, these things spread frustration among the people and contribute toward reducing their trust in public institutions.
Has public mistrust risen suddenly today or had it been building up over the years? It would be safe to say that the scepticism has been increasing for decades. There are three reasons for the increased expression. First, the accuracy and comprehensiveness of publicly available information about democratic performance have improved. Voters are now better informed about their government's performance, particularly about the conduct of leaders in office (for example, corruption). Here, the role of the media, especially the recent proliferation of digital media as well as people's increased access to them, is central. Second, the public's criteria for evaluation of politics and government might have changed in ways that make it harder for representative institutions to meet those standards. This, in turn, might be due to either rising or diverging expectations (or both). Third, the performance of public institutions may have deteriorated. Corruption, after all, has become more pervasive and decentralised.
An uphill task
Political leaders cannot approve a policy and budget to rebuild trust in the same way that we rebuild worn-out infrastructure. The politicians first need to understand the kinds of actions that exemplify trustworthy conduct; for example, abstaining from taking advantage of the vulnerable, paying heed to people's complaints, or promising no more than what one can deliver. Leaders should maintain a clean and inspirational personality with high morale. The public, too, needs to adopt these characteristics.
We should improve our electoral system to give more power to political leaders to resist the rent-seeking behaviour of various interest groups. A directly elected executive might be the appropriate system in Nepal. What’s more, acts of corruption warrant strict action. Unless political leaders go beyond nepotism and favouritism, it will be hard to reinstate the people's trust in public institutions. And unless this trust exists, it will be almost impossible to attain the prime minister's dreams of prosperity. Today's mistrust towards the governance mechanism may gradually turn into a distrust of the democratic system itself.
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