Party-Based Democracy In A Muddle
Dev Raj Dahal
Political parties emerge from the society to serve a vital mediating link between sovereign citizens and the leaders who exercise the state power for the promotion of public interests. Through the transmission of citizens’ demands and programmatic links with the legislature they influence both civic inputs from below and outputs of the government decision and action. Many scholars see that democracy is unthinkable without party competition for public policies. The reality of party-based democracy is that its leaders’ promise of a just society hangs on in a utopia. So long as they cannot alter power relations in society, the influence of corporate elites, party bureaucracy, consultants, lobbyists and non-state actors on public policy remains and creation of a civic culture turns onerous.
The mix of knowledge, science and money power totalises only the network of social control, not liberty and justice. Electoral hit of media mogul Silvio Berlusconi of Italy without his own political party and theatrical staging of persona by Bill Clinton, Tony Blaire and Gerhard Schroeder and mobilisation of new labour without vital party programmes mark new tends. Party-based democracy is in a muddle due to the loss of its monopoly on representation of citizens’ interests, decline of membership, trust deficits of ordinary public, influence of vested interests, waning policy competition and onset of alternative channel of political participation through civil society, social struggles, opposition activism and media seeking democratic accountability. They bring the influence of critical mass, unfold new choice and larger gift of awareness which political parties have to surmise.
This new trend frames a fresh context for public debate on changing role of parties in a pluralist democracy, new rules of the game, new playing field and the bundle of tasks so that party-based democracy does not degenerate into partiocracy - the control of entire national life by party politics, their administration and acts - moral or amoral. The faltering links of political parties to electorates except for mass meeting, mass agitation and elections have enfeebled their ability to politicise the society to increase cadres’ volunteerism, socialise the state to enforce accountability, civilise for inter and intra-party cooperation for democratic quality or an adaptation to democratic life. Nepalis value parties for aggregation, articulation and communication of their interests and their ability to stabilise political order set by the constitution.
In a multi-party democracy like Nepal social learning of leaders is a key to know the interconnected realm of obligations to the party in producing good citizen, the state which promises public good and general duty beyond the national borders to reap the benefit of international cooperation. Nepali parties roles in the polity are: ease the birth of political institutions, shape formal political processes and train citizens in homo politicus, not audience of only a grand tamasa (show) of power. Nepal’s right-based democracy set in popular sovereignty can flourish with bottom up party building and general dispersion of authority to capture the scale of social diversity and the velocity of citizens’ voice.
Nepal’s key political parties—Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal, RPPs, Madhes-based parties and small anti-system parties suffer from a gap between their brand images set up by their founders, birth of a new class following their advent to power who smudges those images, manifestoes and their skewed execution owing to the adaptation to externally determined policy regime. The ironies of leaders are: whether to follow party discipline or conscience, constitutional spirit of popular sovereignty or party statute whose contesting analysis does not fit the spirit of constitutionalism and law based behaviour or expediency devoid of a sense of solidarity.
The ability of Nepali political parties to provide political education for the transformation of people into citizens and rulers into leaders who persuade citizens rather than impose will wobbles. Party schools are less attuned to improve the quality of mind beyond producing indoctrinated man. As a result, cadres and voters’ partisan attachment is unstable. This has allowed en masse recruitment of members from other parties including non-conformist of the party. This switch in party loyalty has opened an opportunity for political opportunism for many leaders and cadres to float around and act as free riders enriching self at the cost of party.
Leaders from non-political domain often project self-image through social media and make citizens better informed to engage in political action. But in no way this ensures party stability, emancipating Nepali politics from human nature or state of nature to be governed by universal reason of politics--public interest, human rights and peace. Leadership consensus on the marketisation of public good through transactional politics has devalued the state, polity and constitutional vision of redistributive justice turning the losers of election devoid of any stake in party-based democracy except remove the regime. Nepal’s party-based democracy is facing other challenges that need to be addressed:
First, the crisis of industrial society and its effects on class-based ideology, worldview, social formation of political parties and their civil society, media and the social contract between the capital and the labour which Nepali leaders have borrowed from advanced countries to manage the nation’s social, economic and political modernisation and democratisation. Labour classes are now fragmented into white, blue, yellow, green colours. The sources of capital are also diversified into land, industry, technology, knowledge and finance. The white colour workers find shared interest with the capital than manual worker while issues of ecology, industrial peace, economic growth, etc. bring the union of capital and labour. This fusion and fission demand an inclusive political format beyond the binary code of labour and capital. Information revolution has sliced the basis of industrial society enriched by mass production, mass parties, mass media, mass culture, mass education, etc.
Second, political parties are fulfilling some functions of old types essential to sustain representative democracy. Nepalis are better socialised, politicised and informed about their rights and issues relative to participatory democracy. Third, erosion of party ideology in Nepal and coalition of all with all in the power-sharing have transformed them into a catch-all type and diluted the class basis of voice and representation. It has increased the demand for social inclusion of assortment of caste, ethnic, dalits, women, aadibasis, minorities, youth, etc. in the parties. Democracy is now judged by the canon of human rights than the domination of majority in decision akin to winner-takes-all. Party-based democracy in Nepal is thus beset by revolts of sub-cultures against the professionalisation of political class integrated more into the materiality of business, government and state machineries than the electorates. Fourth, technology, migration, urbanisation, education and political awareness have altered social stratification and social milieus of Nepal.
The future of party democracy in Nepal rests on the creation of a vibrant public sphere of equal citizens animated by consciousness, courage and emancipatory action. Ironically, it is now split into mini-publics along partisan lines inept to synthesise critical themes on electoral, political and party reforms as per new times informing civic education, public opinion and public policy. Juergen Habermas argues that the dawn of “media-driven personalisation of politics, the direct contact of leading politicians with the viewing public, does intensify the plebiscitary element considerably and diminishes the importance of party organisations.” Media-steered democracy is setting politics along theatrical lines, less programmatic and thus deinstitutionalised in deliberation and connection.
In such a polity, political parties cannot act as representative link between the society and polity and legitimator of political life. The self-rationality of most of Nepali media supplies little to shape democratic will for rational political construction. The swelling circle of advisors, lobbyists, consultants, contractors and non-state actors around powerful party leaders is attributed to holding arbitrary authority, privileging the dispense patronage and shielding impunity for the followers. It has created a new establishment that cuts off their outreach to the electorates expecting democratic prospect.
The flux of Nepal’s opposition political parties - parliamentary, constitutional, anti-systemic to revolutionary stripes - has stoked many grievances in the public sphere and set fluid milieu unreceptive to reducing uncertainty about collective outcome, political stability and good governance without which party-based democracy stumbles. Demand management originating from the ordinary Nepalis such as poverty alleviation, job, education, health, resources and identity and other organised group, non-state actors and non-parliamentary political parties is one of the challenges of Nepal’s party-based democracy.
The supply management is another aspect. But this can be done through democratisation and decentralisation of political parties, elected bodies and non-state social organisations which also operate under personalised, network-based and clientalistic frame. Their entrenchment in market incentives and rent-seeking culture makes it difficult to devolve their power and duties. Democratisation of market is not possible. It operates under the doctrine of greed, efficiency and profit. Rule-based system of production, exchange, distribution and competition in Nepal can enable it to turn responsive to public preference, not act in a monopolist, cartel and syndicate style.
The success of party-based democracy depends on a civic culture shared by all citizens. It fosters a collective Nepali identity, not the narrow identity of party cadres, labour and consumer, pre-political identity of tribal or post-national identity of diaspora. The passion for identity politics manifests in various forms - caste, gender, class, Janajatis, Dalits, minorities, indigenous, age, religion, etc. the motive of which is to fill emotional voids created by excessive party-mindedness and utopia. It exerts pressure on political parties for inclusion, representation, redistribution and recognition.
As the state of parties-led governance in Nepal is stressful owing to leadership rows, opposition and societal unrest and resource scarcity, it has to align with non-party actors-- private sector, NGOs, INGOs and international actors to run party offices, finance election and build political constituency. It has allowed their leverage on soft power, policy and decision making. The amazing power of network politics has added ideological ambiguity, tussle for external support to party financing and vicious factionalism swelling the cost of politics and draining public accountability. The growth of international regimes has fed another set of constraints like the one created by globalised economy which has emptied the ability of party-extended parliament to formulate proper public policies. A number of caucus, lobby, networks and non-state actors aided by external agencies wield pressures along the line of new culture of post-modernity.
In Nepal, persistence of violence defies the up-scaling of common interests over separate ones indicating flaws in the rules of conflict resolution either through hegemony of partisan interest, power equation or electoral majority, not mutual interest satisfaction or value based one whose optimisation can be lasting solution. It has disarmed the state from coercing the deviant one’s subordination to the rule of law and integrity of political life cheering the rival sides to think outside their institutional frame. This offers a chance to settle the anxiety that they are failing in some indefinable way and enjoy the possibility of democratic life political parties are expected to foster.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues)