Restoring balanceThe relationship between the people and political parties is reaching a breaking point.
Ajaya Bhadra Khanal
It has been a toxic combination of incompetence, arrogance and greed.
As if announcing elections at the peak of a pandemic were not enough, political leaders gathered thousands of people from the outskirts and crowded them in big cities in meaningless displays of power. The big rallies and social interactions intensified until the pandemic reached a tipping point, killing thousands of people.
On the other side, the governments have failed to continue the vaccination drive, manage Covid-19, or bolster the health sector. Nepal's political circus, which began at the centre, has now spread to the provinces. Political instability, borne out of complete disregard for democratic principles and values, has reached epidemic proportions in Nepal. In summation, Nepal's politics has failed its people. In fact, the greatest threats to Nepal's economy, democracy, and well being of its people are the political parties.
We can assess the performance of the political parties and the status of our democracy in several ways. For example, we can look at the ability of the parties to deliver the fruits of democracy to the peoples or look at the way they represent the people's voices. We can also look at the status of fundamental rights and freedoms, or adherence to democratic values and the rule of law.
Here, I will briefly discuss the ability of parties to represent and deliver on people's aspirations and how the public has so far perceived their performance.
Strong state, weak people
While the Nepali state has become strong, the people have become weaker and unable to receive the benefits.
The state of disarray and chaos exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic may appear counterintuitive to this claim. However, the Nepali state's ability to raise taxes (and extract from the people) has grown in recent years. For example, in the last 6 years, the tax to GDP ratio has increased from around 16 percent to 21 percent. It is similar to that of high-income countries, but unlike them, most of the taxes are indirect (more than 65 percent). Similarly, Nepal's security and rule of law institutions have become stronger. Nepal's foreign policy has also become more independent, to the extent that the Nepali state can now take stands against countries like India, the US, and China.
The only issue, however, is the use and abuse of such a strong state. Arrogant and incompetent leadership has meant that the strength of the state has been used and misused to serve vested interests rather than deliver the fruits of democracy to its people. In the absence of democracy, who controls the powers of the state and for what ends, has become a critical question. Undoubtedly, many of Nepal's institutions designed to deliver services to the people have become hollowed out and weak.
One evidence of this is public perception. According to a recent nationwide opinion poll conducted by Sharecast Initiative Nepal, a growing number of people believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Such pessimism is more prevalent in the urban areas (50 percent) than in rural areas (40 percent). What is more worrying is that the number of people feeling this way has increased by 16 percent in the last year.
The 'fruits' of democracy that people prioritise are employment, poverty reduction, control of inflation, control of corruption, political stability, health and education. People also want roads, especially in the Sudurpashchim Province.
Failure of parties
The operation of a democratic system is unthinkable without political parties. Political parties are the medium through which people are represented. However, if perceptions of the people are to go by, Nepal's democracy is in crisis. According to the poll, about 76 percent of the people believe that political parties do not represent their interests.
More than three-fourths of the people believe that the parties have failed to represent them. What could be worse?
The primary cause of the current unfavourable situation is political parties and their leaders. About 60 percent of the people do not trust the political parties and their leaders. However, a positive sign is that the people trust their ward representatives more than their provincial or national representatives. People are happy with the local governments and the federal system and think these entities can improve their livelihood.
The political circus being enacted by political leaders and parties in the last few months have again reinforced people's belief that they are the biggest threat to Nepal's democracy, federalism and national interests.
Politicians are obsessed with power because it provides them opportunities for extraction, corruption, and abuse of state powers.
Nepal's younger generation is frustrated by the political instability and failures of the state. However, the availability of jobs overseas and remittance have helped cushion the eruption of discontent back at home. The contribution of remittance to GDP has allowed more space for politicians to continue exercising their excesses and incompetence.
Another outcome of misgovernance and political infighting is that the younger generation is becoming less interested in politics. While 63 percent of Nepali people claim that they are not interested in politics, this figure is much higher for the younger generation.
Of course, there are solutions to these problems and ways in which civil society and citizens can check the performance of political parties. The first step, however, is to recognise that Nepal's democracy is in crisis. The relation between the people and the parties is reaching a breaking point. We must restore this fundamental character of democracy and look for means that does not rest solely on an already flawed electoral system.