It would take a full dose of hare-brained idealism to believe that the impending law on regulating the activities of political parties would end the horse-trading that has saddled the country with so much cynicism. But the outlook may not be all that bad if you consider House of Representatives Speaker Taranath Ranabhat's sense of timing. He decided to forward the bill for the royal seal one day before the US Congress approved the biggest campaign-finance reform legislation in a generation.
Our bill, primarily aimed at preventing political parties from amassing unlimited amounts of money in contributions, had been languishing in the upper house for one-and-a-half years after getting through the lower chamber. The 19th session of parliament couldn't consider the measure because the opposition parties wanted Girija Prasad Koirala to step down as prime minister first. When ruling-party and opposition MPs expanded their squabble to establish whether the Lauda Air lease deal was sleazier than the China South West accord, the bill plunged to new depths of uncertainty.
Asserting his prerogative to forward the measure to the palace without the elders' consent last week, Ranabhat took the moral high ground. By citing the failure of the upper house to abide by the constitutional responsibility to return a finance bill to the lower chamber within 15 days, the speaker reaffirmed the supremacy of representatives the people directly elect. You could easily get a sense of the urgency prevailing in the opposition camp as well. The UML's chief whip, Bharat Mohan Adhikary, said his party welcomed Ranabhat's decision, although he personally couldn't remember the bill's salient features.
Sceptics always wondered how incumbents could seriously agree to dismantle a system that they have profited from. Conspiracy theorists believe the lower house simply egged on the elders to sit on the bill in order to avoid filibusters their constituents would never have forgiven. As individuals less beholden to the influences of soft and hard money-at least in the public mind-upper house MPs stood a better chance of confronting allegations of obstructionism.
Now we understand why the Nepali Congress and the UML have been pampering the smaller parties all these years. The original draft of the bill envisaged state funding of parties based on the votes they received in the last election. Sensing an imminent cash crunch, the smaller parties succeeded in deleting that provision from the version being sent to the palace. In doing so, they also returned the favour to the big players. (Even if you can't win enough votes to form the government, take pride in your nuisance value.)
Once the bill is stamped into law, all recognised parties would have to submit an annual report to the Election Commission, detailing their sources of income and items of expenditure. They would also have to maintain a record of donations of Rs 5,000 and more. The idea is to ensure that every central committee meeting, tree plantation programme and shadowy signature campaign is fully accounted for. You can figure out what kind of opportunities this would create for imaginative auditors.
Advocates of the status quo waged a gallant struggle until the very end. If something isn't broken, why fix it? After all, the country has held three parliamentary elections and two local elections since the restoration of democracy 12 years ago. Moreover, all major parties have held several national and regional conventions, undergoing splits and syntheses, sparing the people the tedium of having to go through their profit-and-loss accounts. Leaders have been running parties with collections from businessmen and proceeds from fund-raising drives either from the centre of power or from the periphery. One businessman recalls how he had once assembled the entire UML leadership in his second-floor office in a dark by-lane in the city centre. He insists he's an equal opportunity benefactor. Name any big name in the ruling party and there's a good chance he'll give you a memorised summary of disbursements complete with dates, time and amounts. (By the way, he never forgets to mention how touched he was by the thriftiness of some of the leaders who form the core of today's Maoist leadership.)
Things were okay until someone realised that not a single party had offered its accounts for public scrutiny. If politicians who have no problem with flaunting their net worth are so zealous in hiding their party accounts, something must be wrong. Around this time, some overworked functionaries in the parties' treasury departments began explaining how painful raising money could be. Some moneybags started reminding us that since "donation" had a connotation of free will, "extortion" provided a more accurate description of the situation.
Those campaigning for political transparency will have to be prepared for some naked truths. What happens to parties found to have contracted enronitis well before the US energy giant gave a name to the disease? Bar them from contesting the next election? Withhold MPs' paycheques for the first full year of their term? Make leaders who have lost the election perform 1,826 hours of community service, at the rate of an hour a day over the five-year legislative term?
Critics of the bill have not lost hope, though. It might take a while before the bill is sent to the palace. Officials at the parliament secretariat say they have to type the legislation, check for typos and give it another thorough reading first. And, of course, we have to watch how things unfold in Washington DC. Some opponents of the McCain-Feingold bill want to take their case to the Supreme Court before the ink on President George W Bush signature dries.