Monday, 24 January, 2022

Overcoming Politics Of Winner’s Curse

Dev Raj Dahal


Winner’s curse occurs when one political party or a group of winning political parties in the elections cannot govern the nation for the term specified in the constitutional mandate either for reason of their leaders’ arrogance arising out of overestimation of self but deficient of skills, or unable to fulfil the excess of expectations of voters aroused in the campaign, intra-mural rifts owing to imbalance of power and position management or influence of external political and non-political actors. In either of the situations winning becomes a high cost for stable rule.

It ignites a resistance of losers both within the parties and outside, especially the critical mass of change agents-minorities, media, civil society and citizens’ groups. It emasculates the power of the government to formulate policies, implement them, create public order, deliver public goods and keep reasonable amounts of social peace. Nepali leaders’ propensity to amass huge mandate and power at the costs of their rivals within the political parties and the public sphere has generated almost equal scale of opposition through acquired muscle thus turning the style of their rule ungovernable and less order-creating which is antithetical to debate on great matters of state. The crucial goal of the Nepali leaders in relation to the nation is not to toot one’s own horn but assume duty in achieving the collective ends of the constitution.

Game of democracy
This is the general condition in Nepal as there are multiplicity of parties each representing social and economic hierarchy and asymmetry of power in society and aspiring to combine personal will to governmental power and achieve the constitutional vision of freedom, social justice, equality of opportunity, inclusion and dignity of people. This does not make democracy a winner’s privilege and paradise and make politics as usual without properly responding to the emerging dynamic forces of Nepali society. The game of democracy is a non-zero sum one which requires managing the opposition and dissenting voices of society in optimal condition so that they do not spill into a situation of confrontation and conflict.

But the lack of civic skill of leadership to manage factions, oppositions and the general grievances of people have provided fresh social fuel both to weaken public institutions and the conduct of losers within the normative bound of the constitution. It imposes difficulty in keeping the stability of governance and rule of law and its efficacy in steering productive functions of society. The larger the shakiness of government drags on, the greater the scale of public cynicism it will face against its inner circle of power and viciousness in inter-party relations thus generating the winner’s curse, not resolving contradictions in the middle path.
Why couldn’t election winning political parties of Nepal such as Nepali Congress, CPN-UML, CPN-Maoist-Centre and a series of heterogeneous coalition governments from the radical left to the right though having overwhelming majority of seats in the parliament, even close to two-third majority, in various phases of the nation’s political history properly govern, fulfil their tenure and execute the mandate of change? Obviously, the first is the erosion of borrowed ideology of political parties that provided universal consciousness to people and ease the indoctrination, not contextual view of the world, thus marking a clash of solidarity in the nation, not coexistence in the frame of the constitution of Nepal.

The central dilemma of Nepali politics is shifting alliances and interests of leaders in a model of self-interest maximisation of homo economicus and unable to coexist to democratic norms and habit of thought of Nepali people to decide politics on the basis of critical debate, not arbitrary fiat of leaders. It has connected Nepali leaders to higher power but in the long run it marked a loss of Nepali parties’ conventionally defined ideological identities by their founders, emotional zeal of citizens attached to it and social solidarity for cooperative action. The recruitment of the members of special interest groups from outside in the legislature and party committees not conforming parties’ basic value have eased economic burden of running party apparatuses but alienated the loyalists who sacrificed their lives in building parties in difficult times thus making them susceptible to adapt to changing circumstances of national politics.

One can see mass migration of leaders and cadres from one party to the next in search for green pasture and weakening the mother parties. Nepali parties formed to band together members, institutions, ideologies and goals for their collective presence in the political system to influence policies and programmes and acquire positions of responsibility are thus fraying and imposing difficulty for the winners to govern. It has increased the costs for their legitimacy, credibility and capacity of leadership in power and breed public cynicism, a sense of let-down from their earlier mission and enthusiasm. 

The second trait people is to suspect the intoxicating nature of political power and defeat the incumbent ruling party in the national elections for their leaders’ tendency to monopolise it nourishing a belief that a leader in power is a leader gone astray from their gaze, connection and feedback provoking the repulsive sentiment of people, civil society and media, the watchdog of power. They vehemently articulate the language of combat for inner-party democracy, power diffusion, checks and rational use of power for public purpose and national interests. The non-fulfilment of the tenure of any government from the Panchayat days to multi-party democracy now indicates that political instability is fated to return as winner’s curse in the nation which is an impediment to overall progress and social peace.

Top leaders of political parties often exhibit large crowd of their followers in the party conventions, organise fanfare and mobilise media yet forget that assembling a huge crowd without proper civic education to them, apt policy debate, ideological construction and proper leadership succession and accommodation demonstrate mere ostentation of wealth and personality cult amounting nothing in terms of substantive outcome for the majority of people, other than race for power. This makes them non-stakeholders of polity and often prompts them to change sides thus causing the deinstitutionalisation of the party system in Nepal. The jubilation of all kinds of regimes in Nepal by the people means they are not sufficiently enlightened to make a distinction between democracy and its processes and its anti-thesis and evolve shared imperatives to prove that democracy circulates new elites in power and serves better than other regimes.

 The third tendency is the articulation of “leadership transformation” in the general convention of various parties without imbibing its essence in their own personal lives and renewal of trust in the politics of the nation. Nepal has already undergone a major structural transformation when the nation was declared a secular, federal, democratic republic. Yet, the search of people for alternative leadership capable of driving the nation and party in difficult times persists. One can see now the change of paradigms in the nature of foreign policy, the state, constitution, polity, governance, political parties, civil society, economy, education, communication and security is affecting Nepal’s democracy. Yet, their execution remains highly slanted as one reveals continuity in the leadership political culture which is highly personalised, centralised, unconnected to public accountability and constitutional duties.

Gautam Buddha is right when he says that if you want to change the world you must have courage and wisdom to change yourself first. It is the basic logic of transformation in the social psychology and political culture of the nation.  Leaders are regarded as a role model for the society and their vision and the harmony of ends-means relationship counts in politics. When top leaders wall off their rivals, they will naturally veer to strengthen their links with other parties and leaders or split, not strengthen their own mother party practicing the democratic tools of negotiation, compromise and accommodation of legitimate interests. Nepali left parties, long socialised in the melody of leader-oriented consensus politics, not a sense of personal liberty and competition, favoured split and kept relentless hostility to each other than engaged in factional compromise of interest for party unity.

Personality difference among the unchanged intuition of leaders of RPP, NC, UML, Maoist Centre and Janata Samajbadi Dal has made messy time for their internal coherence while externally fostered shaky public institutions and a pliant, backlogged judiciary caught in political deadlock spurred by the stir of logic-chopper lawyers. As a result, public intellectuals often ask the creditworthiness of Nepali leaders to engage in inclusive transformation. In the future social, gender and intergenerational tension in Nepali parties will mount while party elections will swing back against yes-men mentality thus tumbling the scope of winner’s curse for democratic rule.

The fourth is the socialisation of cadres, voters and the general public along partisan frames. It has turned politics into a multi-polar drama of political actors, not conforming to the spirit of constitution. It has put a stress on the ethos of constitutionalism like the curse of sati, popular among Nepalis since medieval times for every wrong of the nation and keeping the nation away from the achievement-oriented path of modernisation. Top leaders across the parties habitually change the constitution to fit their passion and issues rather than adopting constitutional behaviour thus plunging majority decisions often controversial and resorting to the court to rectify which has witnessed itself being greatly politicised.

Political cleavages
Fragmented opposition in Nepal may be good for the government’s survival in the short run but their cacophonous socialisation and action have bubbled up political cleavages and devalued the efficacy of mainstream parties to govern the nation in a right way. The winner’s curse in Nepal arose out of the incapacity of leaders to manage the incoherent ambition, interest, identity and ideologies of various factions with the parties and across inter party lines beyond leadership consensus for power sharing.

The fifth is persistent disharmony between the adoption of universal public policies such as SDGs and absence of adequate resources of the Nepali state to fulfil them. It has turned Nepali politics aspiration-fuelled, not stability-driven for executing the goals of governance. The formation of NGOs, civil society, INGOs, community groups, media, etc. around the sectoral interests of SDGs has resulted in a lack of coherence and collective action. The growing power of special interest groups and power brokers has imperilled Nepali democracy’s resilience to withstand the national challenges unless leaders learn from their failures and overcome the psychology of winners’ curse through their cognitive improvement that tells something new to the people. 

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)