5-11 August 2016 #820

Party time

Nepali politics today is run by a cartel of top leaders who shuffle the deck every once in a while so the same King, Queen, Jack and Joker land on top.

In a functioning democracy, elections are a process by which citizens choose the party and politicians they trust most to manage the state machinery efficiently and honestly for the public good. This mandate is time-bound, and representatives thus chosen have a chance to prove that they are dedicated to serving, and worthy of being re-elected. The electorate has the chance to cast them aside when they next vote.

That is how it is supposed to work. Nepalis have struggled to restore democracy multiple times after authoritarian missteps since 1959. They have seen the close correlation between representation, participation and development. We have seen — after the first democratic elections 56 years ago, again for the first few years after 1990, and then following the first post-conflict election — that the people have held on strongly to their belief in the democratic process, as evidenced by heavy turnouts in elections. 

Indeed, the country has seen better governance and more accountable leadership after each democratic exercise. The first tryst with democracy was cruelly cut short by King Mahendra in 1960, leading to three decades of authoritarianism with a Nepali face, called the Panchayat System. The interregnum after the 1990 Democracy Movement lasted only six years before the country plunged into war.

In every case, the euphoria of freedom and the hope that it would improve livelihoods have been dashed. As Chaitanya Mishra argues in an interview with our sister publication Himal Khabarpatrika this week, the reason is that once in power, Nepal’s elected leaders have always treated ‘party’ as being synonymous with ‘government’. The role of a party is to employ legislators to uphold the rule of law by following regulations passed by elected representatives. Political parties are custodians of the public good, and they achieve this by strengthening state mechanisms and institutions. 

However, Nepali politics today is run by a cartel of top leaders who lord over their own parties, and collectively over the country. They shuffle the deck every year or so, with the same King, Queen, Jack and Joker coming out on top. A politician who lost miserably in the 2013 election, and whose party dropped to third position, became Prime Minister this week through backroom wheeling and dealing, secret ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ and hush-hush handshakes.

A political syndicate of four political coteries (it would be inaccurate to call them ‘parties’ any longer) today infests just about every facet of national life, not just government. Education, health, business, community forestry user groups, school management committees — all are under the control of political syndicates. The bureaucracy functions under the direct tutelage of rent-seeking political patrons.

They may seem like they are fighting tooth and nail, but the cartel’s standard operating procedure is to divide up the spoils, and loot while the looting is good. How else does one explain the outgoing coalition of KP Oli arbitrarily distributing Rs 240 million to political cronies and hangers-on — including Rs 10 million to a so-called child prodigy from Jhapa who is apparently a fortune-teller?

Even more serious is the misuse of Parliament’s provision to make the legislature more inclusive by a process of proportional representation (PR). The Constituent Assembly set aside 60 per cent of seats to PR members, who are selected according to the ratio of votes the parties received at the ballot box. This rule has been cynically twisted by all political parties to pad up their numbers in the House with business cronies. The recent Health Bill, for instance, was drafted by MPs who are owners of private medical colleges.

Tycoons who own private schools and colleges recently pushed through amendments to the Education Act. Both have provisions that are detrimental to accessible and affordable health and education for all Nepalis. The Banking Act was drawn up by PR members who also happen to be bankers, but was so controversial it was withdrawn.

The cartel has rigged the system so that the public good takes a back seat. To make matters worse, the institution charged with cleaning all this up has itself become a parallel government, with its own patronage network. No foreign investor wants to come into a country where payoffs and kickbacks are the norm. And, without investments, no new jobs are created, imports go up, and Nepalis migrate for work in ever larger numbers. 

The people are aware, and there is a groundswell of discontent. Street demonstrations this week were against this politics of syndicated corruption that makes rules it can profit from, and against the culture of fear and silence.

Read also:

Kleptocracy kills, Editorial

Lessons not learnt, Editorial

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