Tuesday, November 30, 2021

From Democracy To Oligarchy


Yuba Nath Lamsal

Even as liberal democracy is said to be what Francis Fukuyama says ‘the default from of the government in much of the world’ a new study has revealed that more and more countries are experiencing a marked erosion in the state of democracy and are reverting slowly to authoritarian trend under the facade of democratic set-up. According to the study of International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) on the state of democracy, 70 per cent of the global population currently lives either in non-democratic regimes or in democratically backsliding countries.

Similarly, the Freedom House, which studies the health of the democracies in the world, says in its 2021 report that democracy is in a long recession. It says, “In every region of the world, democracy is under attack”. The Freedom House concluded that democracy declined in 73 countries in the world including India, while it slightly got better only in 28 countries. This global democratic recession is, therefore, a matter of concern and it begs academic research on why democracy, despite its virtues, is in the downhill spiral worldwide.

Behavioural degeneration
Democratic erosion begins with behavioural degeneration in leadership. The power hungry politicians tend to centralise power in their hands. The longer a politician remains in power the more authoritarian he/she tends to be turning the system to run at whim wherein cronies and crooks become dominant at the helm of affairs while people and their genuine representatives take a back seat in decision making. This is how authoritarianism is born, grows and ultimately eats up our hard-fought democracy. This is exactly what Larry Diamond, a political science professor at Stanford University, terms as democratic recession while another US political scientist Francis Fukuyama calls it as the decay of democracy.

Authoritarian tendency arises from the political chaos wherein system fails to work, institutions become dysfunctional, the mechanisms of checks and balances collapse and decisions are made on a whim. Systemic collapse and institutional dysfunction are the early symptoms of a failed state. The system of periodic elections is therefore a necessary tool to test the quality and popularity of leadership and also a mechanism to check leaders from going astray. This is necessary both in the government as well as party functionaries.

In some countries, elections are held but doctored to ensure the victory of those in power. Such elections do not provide free choice for the people and do not ensure genuine democratic franchise. Free, fair and affordable elections are the necessary tool to ensure democracy in the government as well as in the political parties. If elections are fair, electors freely choose their leaders or representatives, which is good for the health of democracy. However, elections are getting so expensive that honest politician can hardly contest the polls. As a result, the elections are hijacked by the rich, corrupt and crooks, which kills the soul of democracy.

In Western democracies, leaders serve in the party and the government for a limited period. In some countries, legal mechanisms restrict the leaders to be in principal position for unlimited time. Mark Twain said “politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason”, perhaps referring to the danger that leader may turn corrupt and authoritarian if he remains in power for unlimited period.

The hunger to remain forever in power and position is more visible in Nepal. Once a person reaches the apex position of the party or the government, he tends to continue to have hold onto power. Similarly, marked intolerance and impatience to go to power has often led to political instability and deficit of public trust on parties and leaders in Nepal. This is partly a reason why democracy often suffered a setback in our country. This tendency to remain in power by hook or by crook is common in all Nepali parties.

Prachanda is in the party’s apex position for more than three decades and he is likely to be in that position for a few more years. There is none to challenge and replace his leadership in the party. Mohan Vaidya and Baburam Bhattarai were potential threat to Prachanda’s leadership but they are out of the party now. While Vaidya quit the party on ideological ground, Bhattarai’s departure from the Maoist party was purely on ground of leadership tussle as he reached the conclusion that he would never be able to get the number one position in the party as long as Prachanda is there.

In the similar manner, KP Oli has emerged unchallengeable leader in CPN-UML. What Oli says is the UML decision. His principal rivals Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal have already quit the party primarily because they could not tame Oli. Their bone of contention with Oli was power as they wanted to capture party leadership despite the fact that they had been party’s principal leaders for quite a long time. The circumstances in UML now are such that Oli may remain party chief as long as he wants.

The story of the Nepali Congress is slightly different as some leaders have publicly challenged Sher Bahadur Deuba’s leadership. But it remains to be seen whether they maintain this momentum till the party’s national congress. However, the mentality to remain in power forever is quite prevalent in the NC leadership as well.

Democratic recession
Power is principal objective for parties and leaders whereas ideological issues and values are secondary. Ideological issues are hardly debated in the party meetings and conventions. This was clearly noticeable in the UML’s 10th convention held in Chitwan. The way leadership was chosen, wherein election was discouraged, is the manifestation of departure from party’s guiding principle. This is exactly what CPN-Maoist Centre may follow in its national congress to be held in near future. Only Nepali Congress may be different as there are high chances that NC leadership will be chosen through election. However, on other behavioural matters Nepali Congress is on the same boat with other parties in the journey from democracy to oligarchy, a marked symptom of democratic recession in Nepal.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Leaders, Lackeys And Lapdogs


Yuba Nath Lamsal

A season of political jamborees has started in Nepal. Parties are set to hold mandatory national congresses. All major parties are doing their homework for their gala meetings probably within a couple months. CPN-UML seems to be ahead in this process. The UML is holding its national congress in Chitwan this month in which it expects to pull a crowd of at least half a million people on the bank of Narayani River. Other parties are to follow. Nepali Congress and CPN-Maoist Centre, too, have announced plans to hold their national congress soon.

As a precursor of the mega event, a political jamboree of the UML called the statute convention was held sometimes ago in Godavari, Lalitpur with pomp and fanfare. UML chairman KP Sharma Oli might have been carried away and thrilled by the presence of a large number of diehard loyalists and display of his big cut-outs in the conclave. However, he should not be mistaken by the presence of a few thousand people as a gauge of his popularity. For a party which boasts to have more than 800,000 organised and committed members, the gathering of a half million may not be a big thing. Other major parties, too, are capable of bringing similar number of people. Crowd pulling seems to be a new political game among parties to give the impression that they have strong popular base.

Misleading crowds
However, crowds are often misleading. They do not give true perspective of one’s popularity. Crowd sometimes symbolises popularity and sometimes hatred. Winston Churchill had similar perspective on crowd. After Britain-led Allied forces defeated Hitler’s army in the World War II, British Prime Minister Churchill was a real war hero not only in his own country but in the rest of Europe. When he was to address a mass meeting after the war, a huge crowd had gathered to hear what Churchill had to say. Pointing to the crowd, a diehard loyalist said how popular Churchill was. However, Churchill replied “they would be twice as big if gathered to see him hanged”.
Churchill’s party lost in the parliamentary election held immediately after the World War victory. Similar cases are in many other countries where political parties have lost elections despite the leaders’ high popularity ratings. Thus, there is a marked difference between perceived popularity and real popularity. In politics, popularity testing is often tricky.

Nepali Congress leader Krishna Prasad Bhattarai was a political celebrity nationwide in the immediate aftermath of the 1990 change. The then Prime Minister and NC chief Bhattarai successfully and to the best satisfaction of the people facilitated and coordinated the promulgation of a new democratic constitution and conducted general election in time thereby completing the political transition within the stipulated time frame of one year. NC won majority in the election under Bhattarai’s leadership. But he himself lost to the then UML general secretary Madan Bhandari in the 1991 election.

Similar case is with Maoist supremo Prachanda, who was the centre of attraction after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord between the government and the CPN-Maoist. A huge crowd used to gather to see him speak. As other parliamentary parties had been discredited owing to their misgovernance and misconduct, Maoists had been viewed as a better alternative in national politics. This popular sentiment was reflected in the results of the first Constituent Assembly (CA) elections in 2008. The Maoists emerged as the largest party, although still short of majority to form its single party government. In the first-past the post system, Maoist won 121 of the 240 seats but failed to secure majority due to the proportionate representation system.

However, Maoists, too, failed to live up to people’s expectations. Prachanda’s party fared miserably in the second CA election trailing a distant third behind Nepali Congress and UML. Even Prachanda lost from Kathmandu. Girija Prasad Koirala also fell victim to the hollowed impression of perceived popularity. Koirala dissolved the House of Representatives and declared fresh election in 1994 almost two years earlier than the scheduled one even when Koirala-led Nepali Congress had continued to command comfortable majority in parliament. Koirala, being starkly unable to keep his house in order, chose this gamble to marginalise dissidents within his party and teach them a lesson. The election proved to be suicidal for Koirala as the Nepali Congress lost election.

Ex-King Gyanendra, too, suffered from this syndrome with sponsored crowd and thought that people were with him. This fallacious belief gave him the courage to try to turn the clock of history back to the era of his father- King Mahendra, which proved him costly as the 240 year old monarchy was abolished. KP Oli seems to be following GP Koirala’s footprints and wants to remain unchallenged leader in his party even at the cost of party’s interest. Since senior leaders like Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal and Bamdev Gautam are already out of the party, there is none in the UML who could challenge his leadership. However, it remains to be seen how the UML under Oli’s leadership will fare in the next general election.

Flawed impression
Oli is under the impression that what UML achieved in the last general election was purely due to his popularity. His firm stance against India’s callous blockade and signing of the transit agreement with China were, of course, courageous acts which have reserved a special place in history. But that alone would not have ensured UML’s impressive achievements in the last election, if the communist parties had not been together.

KP Oli is still under the impression that he continues to enjoy popularity he once had. But that is not the case. In his second innings as Prime Minister, the act of issuing Nepal’s map incorporating Lipulek, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura has definitely added extra feather in his patriotic hat. However, he utterly failed to keep the party united. Lackeys and lapdogs have a greater say whereas honest and committed members have been sidelined. This is not an isolated problem of any particular party but a common phenomenon of all Nepali parties.

( Published on Nov 17)

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Parties In Existential Crisis

 Yuba Nath Lamsal

A political party is a collective expression of people having identical interests, values, principles and commitment to certain cause and mission. Greek philosopher Plato in ‘The Republic’ talks about factions and groups in politics of ancient Greece, which, in a way, can be termed as the early version of political parties. However, the history of modern political parties goes back to the early 19th century with the formation of the Conservative or Tory Party in the United Kingdom in 1823 followed by Democratic Party in the United States in 1828.

The birth, growth and development of the political parties went along with the development of democracy. In multi-party democracy, political parties and democracy are like Siamese twins. Political parties are the principal basis, without which democracy cannot survive, grow and prosper. Democratic polity, thus, is inconceivable in the absence of political parties. Politics is a public domain and its sole objective is public good of larger masses. Organisations or parties are necessary to better pursue public good and common cause of the masses. A group or organisation has more strength and louder voice than individual cry. In a democratic politics, organisation or political parties are necessary to have greater influence on the masses and attract attention of larger section of the society.

Vanguard of class
According to Robert Michels, a party is more important for the working class than others because, in his words, “the weakest section of the society is often defenceless at the hands of those who are economically stronger”. It is only on the strength and power of organisation or party, individuals attain political dignity, maintain their identity and influence in decision-making process. John Stuart Mill calls political party as necessary elements of a healthy state of political life, whereas Vladimir Lenin says a party is the vanguard of a class, and its duty is to lead the masses and not merely to reflect the average political level of the masses.

When it comes to Nepal, the origin of political party goes back to second decade of the 20th century. In 1927, a group of politically enthusiast youths namely Umesh Bikram Shah, Khadga Man Singh, Ranga Nath Sharma and Maina Bahadur formed a political group called Prachanda Gorkha’ with the objective of establishing parliamentary democracy in Nepal, which is the first political party of Nepal. However, some historians call the Prachanda Gorkha as a mere clique of people and was not a political party. According to them, Praja Parishad, which was formed in 1936 with the clear mission of overthrowing the Rana family oligarchy and establishing democracy, is the first political party in Nepal.

Perhaps, Nepali Congress is the first political party that made a real impact on Nepali political ambience. It was Nepali Congress that spearheaded the popular movement sending the century old Rana oligarchy packing and ushering in a multi-party democracy. Then came the communist party followed by several others of different hues and colours. Now there are over five dozens political parties with only a half dozen functionally impacting Nepal’s national politics.

Political parties are essential instruments of the modern democratic polity. They have played crucial role in establishing democracy and nurturing it. But some tend to argue that our parties are the principal culprit in discrediting democracy. Nepali democracy is young and has a chequered and tumultuous history. However, democracy has come under assault in different intervals. In a less than a decade since Nepal had the first triumph and trial of democracy in 1951, multiparty system came under attack from the institution that had been restored on the strength of people and political parties. Kings had been reduced to a mere puppet of Ranas until 1951. Had the people and parties not backed the king, the monarchy would have been abolished right in 1951 as the king had already fled to India.

But the same institution crushed democracy putting leaders, who had fought for the authority of monarchy, behind bars and depriving the parties of their rights. The hijacked democracy and rights were reinstated only in 1990 through the joint struggle of the Nepali Congress and the United Left Front, comprising seven communist parties. The role of the parties has been central in bringing about political change in Nepal, whereas monarchy has always been a stumbling block. Another attempt was made by Gyanendra Shah, who by accident ascended to the throne in 2001 after the assassination of King Birendra and his entire family, but was soon scuttled by another popular movement jointly launched by an alliance of seven parliamentary parties and an insurgent Nepal Communist Party-Maoist.

Gyanendra Shah’s thoughtless move changed the country’s political contour as it paved the way for brining parliamentary parties and Maoists together and putting an end to 240-year old monarchy and declaring Nepal as world’s youngest republic. Had Gyanendra Shah not chosen to tread the suicidal political path, monarchy would not have ended so easily. In abolishing monarchy, Gyanendra Shah was primarily responsible. King Gyanendra failed to comprehend people’s pulse especially after King Birendra’s assassination as they had a little respect on the new king.

Public apathy
Similar case is with political parties. People’s trust in political system and parties erodes because of self-centred, egoistic and eccentric behaviour of leaders, which turn parties into weeds on the flourishing political farm rather than inevitable element. This is not an isolated case of Nepal but global trend as political parties are facing existential crisis due mainly to dwindling faith of people in them both in the developed and developing democracies. As observed by Kenneth Wollack, citizens, globally, have grown frustrated with political parties and leaders and the society views political parties as “ineffective and corrupt”.
Tyrants take advantage out of the growing public apathy towards parties, the evidence of which can be taken from our own country. King Mahendra’s coup in 1960 and Gyanendra’s misadventure in 2005 are the cases in point like what Tocqueville said ‘threat to democracy comes more from within than from outside’. The people neither supported the king’s regressive move, nor did they come out to the streets spontaneously against it. It took years for the Nepali people to realise that democratic anarchy is better than the tyranny of monarchy.

(TRN on Nov 3, 2021)