Play by the rulesThe Nepali people and the world are watching the developments in Nepal as the country stands on the verge of its federal transition.
The Nepali people and the world are watching the developments in Nepal as the country stands on the verge of its federal transition. We watch to see if Nepal will travel the road shared with other responsible democracies by respecting the rule of law, honouring the independence of co-equal branches of government and holding the corrupt and lawless accountable. While optimists hold out hope for such an approach, cynics brace for a future in which Nepal walks with those nominal democracies that overlook corrupt self-dealing, subvert the political process with thuggish tactics and tolerate impunity.
Level playing field
Some individual politicians may be tempted to take the wrong road because it serves their party or personal interests, but in a democracy, the voters can overrule the irresponsible and self-interested with their decisions at the ballot box. This is the genius of the self-correcting system of democracy. But democracy does not survive on its own; it requires conscientious adherence to the rules of the game, which means the rule of law, to level the playing field for all its citizens to participate fairly and equally.
Winston Churchill called democracy “the worst form of government, except for all of the other forms that have been tried from time to time.” He recognised that democracy is a messy game. But it is the best game on Earth—when everyone plays by the rules—and has the potential to unleash peace, development and stability. The constitution sets the boundaries, the laws are the rules, and judges serve as the referees. This leaves room for exuberant and heartfelt play, where there’s a fair and level playing field and opportunity for everyone to participate despite much bumping and jostling.
When referees rule that players have stepped out of bounds or broken the rules, the players do not get to remove the referees just because they do not like the calls. They do not get to play outside the lines and violate the rules with impunity, lest the country is prepared to forego the benefits, and the very foundation, of credible and orderly governance. That is not democracy. That is a different and dangerous game that invites more rule breaking, chaos and retaliation from those who recognise that they are losing unfairly. Nepal threw off the yoke of biased rule serving only the few. The question now is whether Nepal will live up to the sacrifices of those who helped make this transition by building robust democratic institutions. In this game, the process is important.
Lessons from the US
The United States has enjoyed democracy with the world’s longest-surviving constitution for over 240 years. But, like Nepal, the US has seen its share of challenges. Those challenges usually arose from a lack of respect for the rule of law. And those challenges were overcome by a return to the rule of law anchored in strong institutions. Just as Nepal grapples with the lawlessness of political forces and student unions that extort schools with explosives and threats of violence to the detriment of children’s education, in the 1960’s the US also saw angry crowds try to deny minority children access to schools. Just as Nepal confronts attempts at appointments, impeachments and dismissals of leaders of state institutions seemingly based on allegiance to political parties or leaders, in the 1930’s the United States saw a president unveil a secretly-devised plan to expand and pack the Supreme Court with justices sympathetic to his initiatives. Just as Nepal has problems with politically-protected cartels exploiting citizens in sectors ranging from vegetable supply to transportation to education, the US had a mafia organisation that flourished for more than six decades.
Eventually, however, through the power of democracy and dedication to the rule of law, African American children attended school, the court-packing scheme failed and law enforcement broke the back of the American mafia. America emerged from these challenges better than before, hopefully better prepared to address new problems. Our struggle is not over. But we have strong institutions founded in the rule of law upon which we work every day to make ours a more perfect union. Nepal can achieve its full potential by working toward a stronger democracy with a solid respect for the rule of law.
The machinery of governance can be depoliticised. Political parties are useful for people to organise and express their interests, but pure partisan politics
corrode the machine. Clandestine payoffs to party leaders in exchange for a place on the ballot are an affront to true democracy, only perpetuating further corruption to recover the expense and profit. Worse, strong candidates dedicated to their communities are excluded, which squanders the leadership so necessary to Nepal’s success.
Violence is never an acceptable means of expression. Extortionate, criminal and violent tactics are rightly rejected in a civil society. As Nepal votes in local, provincial, and national elections over the coming eight months, the United States hopes that leaders and members alike will rebuke party opportunists who use such tactics, and that voters will reject candidates who would benefit from these unethical and criminal practices.
Messy but fair
Those who use the trappings of their offices to enrich themselves or the power of their uniforms to victimise others can face justice. Impunity metastasises and the sickness grows and weakens a government. Finding and excising the corrupt and the guilty is a painful and difficult process, but one that is often necessary to stop the rot for the long-term health of the body politic. Nepal’s success requires leaders who will hold wrongdoers accountable.
Respect for the roles that each branch of government must play is a necessary feature of a successful democracy. The legislature passes the laws, but is confined by the strictures of the constitution. The executive carries out the laws faithfully and without prejudice. An independent judiciary ensures that all are following the rules. Powers are separated so that control does not dangerously accumulate in one branch alone; each branch checks the excesses of the others.
In a democracy, the country does not belong to any politician or any party. Those who govern are entrusted with those powers by the voters—by the people to whom the country collectively belongs. As campaigning progresses and voting takes place, the Nepali people have an opportunity to tell leaders they will be held accountable—
accountable if they break the rules, accountable for favouring conflicted interests over the interests of the people, accountable if they try to rig the game, and accountable if they fail to bring criminals to justice.
Democracy is and ought to be messy, but it should also be fair. Only in democracy and through the rule of law can the people root out corruption, promote the rights and well-being of all, and avoid sowing the seeds of revolt that come from the subjugation of the weak by the powerful. The United States has stood with Nepal for 70 years and we stand in solidarity with the people of Nepal in this special year as they cement the foundation for a prosperous future buttressed by good governance and the rule of law.
Teplitz is US Ambassador to Nepal