For a new partnershipA few weeks ago, a photograph from Saptari summed up Nepal’s social reality. The stark image showed hundreds of Madhesi youths lining up to enlist in the temporary security apparatus for local elections.
A few weeks ago, a photograph from Saptari summed up Nepal’s social reality. The stark image showed hundreds of Madhesi youths lining up to enlist in the temporary security apparatus for local elections.
This image would not have been starker without a contradictory image—that of political parties and leaders opposed to local elections. Many politicians continue to raise the prospects of political instability and an adverse security environment in the Madhes, a potential roadblock to smooth political transition.
The contradiction between political parties fighting over political issues and ordinary people pressed by their livelihood and economic needs is a poignant reminder of our political malaise.
After almost two decades of unrest, Nepal is gearing up to move from a period of political transition to an age of political stability. Political issues remain, but not everybody is in the mood for another period of unrest.
Mainstream political parties, apparently, have sensed this mood. The Nepali Congress was quick to announce prosperity as the main theme for its upcoming electoral campaign, while the UML is preparing to announce yet another ambitious goal of driving Nepal’s per capita income to $5,000 within the next five years.
The burning question is whether the political parties like the NC, the CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre) are likely to deliver on their promises.
A few reasons
There are strong grounds to indicate that the conventional mainstream parties will neither bolster stable democracy nor deliver equitable development, the prerequisites for peace and prosperity.
I want to outline a few reasons for this argument.
The first reason is internal party democracy. Some time ago, I was involved in a study that revealed an ingrained problem regarding internal party democracy in all the major political parties. The leaders of almost all the major political parties tend to use power in an increasingly centralised and opaque manner, bypassing the parties’ internal decision-making mechanisms.
One of the direct effects of such a way of functioning is that, instead of being accountable to the people and the ordinary party members, the political leaders tend to serve the vested interests of their benefactors—whether they are foreign governments, contractors, business people or loyal cliques.
The only way of promoting internal party democracy in these parties are the new provisions in the constitution which require the parties to expand their membership base in order to fulfil the requirements for inclusive representation. However, this process is going to be a long one; we cannot expect the parties to transition to democratic functioning within the next two or three electoral cycles.
The problem with internal party democracy is also afflicting Nepal’s overall democratic environment. Although the constitution seeks to ensure separation of powers, the informal political mechanisms and centralisation of power undermine such checks and balances. Political leaders have found a way of extending their influence and reach to almost all branches of the state, increasing impunity and misgovernance.
The third reason is the prevalence of an extractive political system, where the largest political parties frequently collude to misappropriate public resources and maintain barriers to new entrants.
Extractive institutions controlled by a small number of people obtain incomes, wealth and power from a large number of people who become trapped in a cycle of poverty and powerlessness. Such economic elite domination in Nepal has created exclusionary and unaccountable institutions where ordinary citizens are unable to gain access to power, resources and opportunities.
For example, the head of a large manpower agency recently became the minister of labour. And another person running stone extraction and mining enterprises became the minister of forest and soil conservation. In both these instances, political parties overlooked conflicts of interests and the individuals freely practised extortion.
The primacy of economic and political interests will mean that political parties will continue to prop up ‘afno manchhe’—individuals representing their vested interests—over people capable of delivering the fruits of democracy to the people. Such an ingrained and extractive political system makes it impossible for the government to serve the general public, and it will continue to hinder Nepal’s economic development despite opportunities to unleash growth.
Despite a lack of accountability and high levels of frustration among citizens, there are opportunities for change. However, these malpractices can only be addressed politically, as many efforts at institutional reforms have failed primarily because there is no political alternative.
Three main hurdles
As such, there is a huge demand for clean, efficient, and democratic politics. Such politics, however, needs to overcome three main hurdles.
The first hurdle is the barrier for entry. Existing political parties have made it difficult for new entrants to gain traction, whether it is through electoral mechanics, or through patronage politics at the local level, or through unequal rules of the game.
For example, a new political party will need to communicate their election symbols to the voters in eight days, while the big political parties need to make no effort at all. On top of that, the candidates for different positions will get different elections symbols (eg a badminton cork, a carrom board) making it a massively difficult task for both the political parties and the voters to learn and identify symbols on the ballot paper.
Similarly, for a new political party intent on practising clean and democratic politics, fund-raising has to be transparent, whereas, for existing parties, the source and collection of funds verge on the criminal. The competition between the two types of parties will continue to remain unequal unless the voters are aware of such dynamics or unless there is a system to crack down on financial irregularities.
The second challenge to a new political party relates to what has been called the “enigma of reason.” Although it makes sense for rational voters to choose the best individual or the best political party, the way people use their reason has remained an enigma. Thus, emotional affinity and membership base remain much more reliable indicators of voter behaviour than the features of the political party or political agenda.
The third challenge is much more difficult to manage. A new political party in Nepal has to operate within the same social milieu and has to build a large membership base, and there is a risk that new entrants will become like the old. Maintaining core political values like transparency, integrity, meritocracy, and system will require a sustained and strategic effort that only a few parties will be able to pull off.
Despite these challenges, Nepal does need a complete transformation of politics if it is to deliver peace and prosperity. The time has come for a new type of partnership between those willing to create a new kind of politics and rational individuals who see the need for such politics. Without such broad-based partnership, our dreams for a new Nepal will continue to remain a dream.