Our Metamorphosis to Kakistocracy

Sucheta Pyakuryal | 14 January 2023
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To make matters worse, we now have a newly formed Parliament with no opposition.

Ask any student of government and politics and they will tell you how the discipline makes them understand various systems of government and types of governance and political ideologies that the political systems use to operate. A typical modern, legal-rational political system operates under a democratic modus operandi. To practise democracy, a state needs a system in place, and procedural democracy does not have many structural-functional templates it can choose from.

In Nepal’s case, adopting the system of representative democracy made sense to the prevailing socio-political mindset. Since the start of our democratic practices in 1951, representative democracy has been the de facto choice, and the prevalent best practices point to two popular systems: Parliamentary form and presidential form of government. Maybe because we too had a colonial residue in our socio-political system and psyche and an implicit bias for and awe of the British system of government, we opted for the parliamentary form of democratic governance with constitutional monarchy after the British model in 1990. Reflecting back, one cannot help but wonder whether our constitutional framers even considered other systems of governance, such as direct democracy, which probably is more practical and sustainable given the size of our nation-state.

The Westminster style of parliamentary democracy, which operates under the premise of majoritarian rule, comes with certain clauses and conditions. The template we chose and adopted came with those conditionalities that the West had pointed out since the early days of its inception and adoption. They had explicitly pointed out how “tyranny of the majority” is a condition that can develop, and to counter this malaise, a system of “checks and balances” needs to be weaved into the structure. In his book On Liberty, a British political philosopher, JS Mill, first discussed the concept of the tyranny of the majority. The precise term, however, is attributed to the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville which he used in his book Democracy in America, alongside the discourses on two other necessary political conditions for democracy “separation of power” and democratic “checks and balances.”

In simple terms, a state cannot hope to sustain procedural democracy without the separation of powers and checks and balances. In the United States, checks and balances are weaved in through the system of separation of powers, whereby they have three branches of government as well as a bicameral legislature. In the United Kingdom, checks and balances are conducted through the opposition along with the two-chamber legislature. With these templates in place, various nouveau democracies have opted for either the presidential or parliamentary democracies and have encountered various challenges of both the systems such as the idiosyncrasies of hung Parliaments or presidential autocracy, but as of now, there has been no recorded instance of a Parliament with no opposition.

What Nepal has at the moment is a badly morphed political machine that erodes democracy bit by bit, an apparatus that can systematically steal from the state coffers without any organised check in place. Suddenly, we find ourselves devoid of the opposition in the Parliament—a substantial institution that is part and parcel of parliamentary democracy as well as a part of the original formula to save Parliament from becoming the handmaid of the ruling party(s). After a series of hung parliaments that have marred our democracy, it was reduced to a bumbling “kakistocracy” last week, and that too with kleptocratic tendencies. For the uninitiated, kakistocracy is a rule by the worst kind of people who are immoral, unscrupulous or bad. Just as the Greek word “eudaimonia” encompasses more than the “good life” in the study of politics, “kakistos” holds more meaning than just the “worst kind”.

We have a group of people who, in the guise of delegates or agents of the people, operate as relentless rent-seekers. Be it systemic corruption such as the Baluwatar land scam, the Covid-19 healthcare procurement scandal, the pre-election inter-party alliance that refuted every ethos of democratic politics, the post-election wheel and deal behind the newly formed hung Parliament that exposed the level of accountability of the erstwhile and the present prime ministers, or the latest overwhelming vote of confidence garnered by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, all these point to the direction of kakistocracy. We have formally arrived at the state of kakistocracy and what lies ahead looks bleak and grim.

We have an economic crisis staring at us. The public sector that is festered with systemic corruption is inept in both policy formulation and administration, unbridled market, and sovereignty that is at risk of getting compromised by a massive influx of policy imports, political pressures from within and outside of the region, and political parties that resemble the American political machines of the 19th century- rife with patronage and nepotism. Last year, around this time, Transparency International published its 2021 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), which ranked Nepal as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. This year the expectation is that we will get an even lower score due to the behind-the-scenes political horse-trading and election tickets distribution. Making matters worse than it already is, we now have a newly formed Parliament with no opposition.

The “absence of an organised opposition can easily invite political dictatorship” is a well-grounded political theory. We may be able to escape that political fate with the multiparty system that we have in place, but the dictatorship of this wanton political class could result in anarchy and the collapse of our entire system, something worse.

One often gets to hear a particular sentence uttered by Woodrow Wilson through those who teach politics and administration on “how easy it is to make a constitution, but extremely hard to run one”. Never before did this sentence seem truer than now.

Pyakuryal is director at the Centre for Governance and Academic Affairs Institute for Integrated Developed Studies.

This article was originally published on The Kathmondu Post.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.