Monday, 24 January, 2022

From Democracy To Oligarchy

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.

(The author is former ambassador and former chief editor of this daily.