Monday, 25 January, 2021

Political Feuding Hurts Democracy

Mukti Rijal


Nepal opted bracing for the destiny of a democratic and federal polity more than a decade ago. Nepali people had paid a heavy price for such a far going political transformation. Several thousand people sacrificed their lives and many more endured suffering in their fight for democracy and justice. The traditional monarchical rule had been toppled with a long cherished hope that the better days will dawn if the country chose and adopted a federal democratic republican polity as the governing norm.  
However, the contemporary political developments in the country do indicate that the country seems not pursuing the appropriate and wise path to ensure that people's aspirations and wishes are substantively delivered. This indicates that introducing democratic institutions may be easier than making it flourish and sustain. Instead of strengthening political and economic institutions, political actors have frittered away time and resources for the last several decades for one’s own vested political interests and ends.

Plight of people
Political functionaries have kept on bickering for long over the divisive issues solely dictated and motivated by their own partisan and self-centered interests. They have dragged the country into such a pass by reason of unscrupulous and deviant actions. The ongoing spate of protests, agitations and mass mobilisations across the country for and against the dissolution of the House of the Representatives illustrates the irresponsiveness and insensitivity of the political leaders across the partisan divide. The political elites have been oblivious of the sad plight of the people and seem inclined to take any steps for their own parochial interests. 
Due to this, the provisioning of development, public utilities and services, equity and justice to the people have been sorely neglected and the hopes and aspiration are blatantly shattered .The unpalatable twist of the political actors' behaviours has been that they have started to treat and abuse their party colleagues and co-functionaries as enemies and antagonists. They have gone to the extent of attacking and wrecking from within the fundamentals of such institutions as courts, election management body and many other state organisations that are said to be the pillars of functioning democracy. Political leaders through recourse to polarised and divisive have assaulted on democratic institutions and values.
Nepali civil society has started to articulate voices with perceptible concern over the threat to democracy and democratic institutions in the country. Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the two political scientists in their widely acclaimed work titled ‘How Democracies Die’ make a deeper and incisive analysis on the threat to democracy analysing the cases and episodes from different state across the globe. According to them, threat to democracy comes not from the blatant dictatorship in the form of fascism or military rule as they have disappeared across much of the world. Military coups and other violent seizures of power are rare. Most countries hold regular elections. They insist democracies die but by different means.
Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by military dictatorship but by democratic political leaders themselves. Very interestingly the authors remark that democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box. The electoral road to breakdown of democracy, according to them, is dangerously deceptive. On the electoral road to breakdown of democracy, constitutions and other nominal democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Both ruling and opposition leaders maintain a veneer of democracy while they do not mind undermining its substance. Many efforts to subvert democracy may even be portrayed and defended as attempts to consolidate and enhance democracy. A glaring instance of it is Donald Trump. He is an elected president who has resorted to some very objectionable and unscrupulous modus operandi to tarnish the image and undermine the vitals of democracy in that country.
Last week's violent riot in the Capitol Hill laid bare the vainglory of democracy in the United States. Some US international policy analysts have argued that ambitious foreign-policy goals are completely out of step with the realities of the country’s domestic political and economic dysfunction. How can the United States spread democracy or act as an example for others if it barely has a functioning democracy at home? Some political affairs experts have even called President-elect Joe Biden to abandon his proposed international summit for democracy and hold a domestic one instead while others have lamented that it will be a long time before US can credibly advocate for the rule of law, human rights and democracy overseas.
The above discussion shows that the threat to democracy and democratic institution is framed by the conduct of the political leaders and functionaries themselves. This is not the case of Nepal alone but the emerging political trend which is called as democracy backsliding in many parts of the world. The tendencies to gradually sabotage democratic institutions and values in the veneer of democracy need to be fought off. But this needs, among others, a strong civic push and vigilance moving beyond the planks of the formal democratic institutions and procedures.

Check and balances
In order to enhance the democratic competence of the citizens to enable them to engage and participate in enhancing democratic institutions, it is necessary that the focus should be placed on democracy and civic education for citizens so that they not only imbibe into the values and notions of democracy but also keep vigil over the actions of the unscrupulous political leaders. The deepening of democracy is possible only when citizens have democratic competence and are capable of being engaged with political actors and institutions for effective checks and balances.

(Rijal, PhD, contributes regularly to TRN and writes on contemporary political, economic and governance issues. 

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