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Sunday, August 7th, 2016

Press FreedomIn dictatorships, it is standard operation procedures to detain civil society activists and dissidents. But it is when a nominally democratic state that is supposed to be governed by its core values starts trying to muzzle the media, that there is cause for concern. Recent events prove that you don’t need a dictator to roll back democracy and try to control the free press. Parallel power centres can easily commandeer the system, and we are threatened by the rise of elected demagogues.

It is not surprising when despots jail journalists and censor media. It is when that happens in what is supposed to be a democracy that it is a serious worry. Nepal’s political transition is in a prolonged interregnum between two constitutions, and it is in this adjustment period that there is the danger of a return to authoritarianism.

Through recent history, Nepal has seen various forms of totalitarian rule: a century of the feudal Rana regime, 30 years of an absolute Panchayat monarchy, the authoritarian streak of King Gyanendra who staged a military coup in 2005. In between we have seen two pro-democracy uprisings only to witness those hard-won freedoms frittered away by power-greedy politicians.

When the initial exhilaration of democracy evaporates, cynicism replaces hope, and the people lose their trust in the public officials they elected to power. That is when there is a creeping nostalgia for strongman rule. In Nepal, we see this mindset manifested in support for an executive presidentship in the new constitution, and the public’s admiration for centralised control as in China, or for leaders like Lee Kuan Yew to steer the country towards prosperity.

But we have tried dictatorships here before, and ended up struggling against them because they were unrepresentative and turned out not to be a very efficient form of governance. They centralised corruption, reduced participation and gave the people no say in how they wanted to be ruled. We hoped for benevolent dictators, but ended up with malevolent ones.

Whenever democracy is in disarray, there is a hankering for strongman rule. And as we saw in the Indian Emergency, a strongman need not be a man. Indira Gandhi‚Äôs experiment with autocracy may not have lasted long because the roots of democracy and press freedom in India went too deep, but there are still intellectual adherents to Indira‚Äôs ‚Äėdisciplinism‚Äô.

And across the world today, we see a similar ideological tilt towards authoritarianism even in supposedly open societies. The rise of the racist right in Europe, the terrifying prospect of Donald Trump being elected to the White House, the self-confessed head of a death squad being elected president of the Philippines, UKIP’s vision of an independent UK during the Brexit vote, and in our own neighbourhood an increasingly intolerant ruling party that uses religious revivalism as the mantra of power.

Western democracies have a design defect: they allow the freedom to express the most outrageous views. Populist politicians use this to stoke xenophobic fears about migration, crime, terrorism, and the mass media can be manipulated to whip up the electorate. Democracy thus ends up electing demagogues who use nationalism, bigotry and identity politics, especially during times of turmoil.

Jochen Bittner of the German newspaper, Die Zeit, calls this global anti-democratic wave ‚Äėorderism‚Äô ‚ÄĒ it is based on fear and offers stability over freedom and could also be called ‚ÄėPutinism‚Äô. Bittner compares Orderism to the promises of utopia under Communism, and says ‚Äėit is merely a fig leaf for tyranny‚Äô. The enemy is liberal democracy, and in this Putin, Trump, Duterte, and others have a mutual admiration society.

In Nepal, the support for strongman rule stems from 25 years of political instability, unaccountable leadership and democratic decomposition. There is a romantic notion that the Malaysian model of limited democracy would lead the country to economic growth, but we forget that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib today is facing a US Justice Department investigation for one of history’s biggest corruption scandals.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and we see an example of that today in Nepal, too. Our own anti-corruption watchdog is now more powerful than the elected government of the day. It is fashionable thing to say in hoity-toity circles in Kathmandu that Nepalis are too immature and poor to afford democracy. That is natural because the status quo benefits the privileged, genuine democracy would shake things up. The problem is not the system, it is the people who misuse it for personal enrichment and power. Corrupt party apparatchiks, political brokers, and patronage are the real reasons for the state we are in.

The answer is to keep strengthening the pillars of democracy, the institutions that offer the check and balance to a failed Executive and illegitimate centres of power: civil society, mass media, the Judiciary and the Legislature.

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One Response to “ORDER! ORDER!”

  1. Utsuk Shrestha on Says:

    I am tempted to write something in against of your argument especially your opposition to the Presidency.
    I think there is no point arguing the presidential system is undemocratic, albeit the nature of single authority implies the authoritarian leadership.
    I strongly disagree with your argument that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The role of abuse investigation authority is exaggerated here in Nepal. The nation will know why this is the case in the future hopefully.
    We love democracy, democracy means tolerance and openness to criticism. An authoritarian leadership does not necessarily mean she is anti people and anti press. However, that may mean anti anarchy and headstrong policies which we think are good for a leader and signs indicating the ability to weather the storms.

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