A Code of Conduct for Political Parties to Create a Conducive Environment for Peace and Democracy

Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam
At NDI/LDN Interaction Forum
Washington, DC
23 October 2005

I would like to focus my remarks today on how Nepal’s parliamentary political parties can play a more effective – indeed a decisive – role in ending the conflict and bringing about a genuine democracy – not just restoring the old prajatantra but instituting a new lokatantra in Nepal.

I focus on political parties, not because they are the only players, nor because they are the only ones who need to change and transform themselves. Certainly the King, the RNA and the Maoists too have a huge responsibility to change their behaviour. But it is the political parties to whom the future of Nepal’s democracy and destiny beckons today. Hence my focus on what they can and must do to create a conducive environment to resolve Nepal’s current political crisis.

Political parties are the foundation of a modern multi-party democracy. After some tentative start in the 1950s, Nepal got a real chance to try out multi-party parliamentary democracy only in the 1990s. The results of this period were mixed.

Ram Sharan Mahat has captured very well the essence of this period in his book “In Defense of Democracy: Dynamics and Fault Lines of Nepal’s Political Economy”.

The decade of democracy in the 1990s was sometimes chaotic, but it led to flourishing of political freedoms, faster than previous pace of economic growth and social services, a free and thriving media, civil society activism in the fields of human rights and social justice.

Despite the normal teething problems of a new democracy in a feudal society, it was functioning relatively well especially at the local level and was beginning to produce good results. But we must be honest and acknowledge that at the national level, the parliamentary political parties acquired notoriety for corruption, mismanagement, and bickering for power and perks.

There is no doubt that the political parties squandered their opportunity to help build a strong foundation for democracy with good governance. None of the party leaders truly commanded great popular respect. Many of them were seen as power-hungry political opportunists, lacking vision, maturity and a sense of accountability.

However, without justifying their shortcomings, it must also be objectively acknowledged that Nepal’s political leaders were, on balance, perhaps not terribly more corrupt and inefficient than leaders in many other new and fragile democracies.

Had the democratic experiment been allowed to continue, over time, there was a good chance that younger and more accountable leaders would have emerged from the grass roots and would have helped transform the parties.

A functioning democracy tends to be self-correcting as voters eventually throw out irresponsible and unaccountable leaders.

Moreover, the value of democracy should be measured not only by the performance of political leaders but also by the vibrancy of civil society, the freedoms enjoyed by people to express their views and pursue their dreams. And from that point of view, Nepal was actually on the right track, until the Maoist rebellion derailed it.

As we look ahead to the future, the political parties can and must play a decisive role in creating a conducive environment for resolving the current conflict and ushering in a new chapter of democracy. But to do that they will have to reengineer themselves, bring truly democratic practices in their internal working methods, bring out fresh, untainted young leadership, and commit themselves to a strict “code of conduct” to hold themselves accountable to high standards of integrity.

Many of the current party leaders must acknowledge that they have given democracy a bad name by their maladministration and corruption, and they must take bold measures to exonerate themselves from popular revulsion – some of it justified but much of it stoked by anti-democratic forces.

To effectively address the real as well as the perceived weaknesses of the political parties, I believe a detailed and specific plan of action and a code of conduct needs to be prepared and subscribed to by all the major political parties, especially those in the 7 party alliance, both collectively and individually.

In my view such a code of conduct should address 7 specific issues:

Internal Democracy within Political Parties

  1. Non-tolerance of Corruption
  2. Affirmative Action to Empower Underprivileged Groups
  3. Responsible Behaviour of “Loyal Opposition”
  4. Commitment not to politicize civil service and security forces
  5. Campaign Financing arrangements
  6. Agreement on the Role of the Monarchy and the Maoists

Let me elaborate on each of these 7 points:

Internal democracy within political parties: All political parties champion democracy for the country, but most of them do not practice it in their internal organization and management. Some elder leaders or a small circle of leaders are believed to have undue and undemocratic influence in policy setting and decision-making within the parties.

There is a patronage system whereby even leaders widely known to be corrupt and unaccountable receive protection from the party leadership. The following are some of the steps needed to overcome this situation:

– Institute term limits for key leadership positions in political parties, so nobody is able to retain top party positions for more than 2 consecutive terms,

– Open up and democratise the selection process for candidates for election, possibly through “primary elections” or straw polls in electoral constituencies,

– Provide for recalling elected leaders, under certain circumstances, when their conduct betrays their campaign promises or the party’s election manifesto,

– Fill all party leadership positions through elections rather than consensus or nomination by party leaders. If necessary, leaders may always co-opt additional, competent advisors to support the party leadership.

Non-tolerance of corruption:  Political parties have a reputation for tolerating and even condoning corruption. There have been many high profile cases of senior party leaders in important government positions who have acquired wealth beyond their legitimate source of income while in office.

Sometimes even when the leaders themselves are clean, they are accused of facilitating corruption, nepotism and other special favours to members of their extended families.

There has hardly been any successful prosecution of known and notorious corrupt officials who continue to hold high positions in political parties and government. People deeply resent the sense of impunity and lack of accountability with which influential politicians get away with corrupt practices. This breeds a sense of cynicism and distrust in political parties that needs to be urgently corrected.

The following would be some specific actions to deal with this issue:

– Requirement for leaders to disclose their own and their immediate family members’ income, assets and tax payments on an annual basis, and especially before and after assuming ministerial or senior constitutional positions,

– Disqualification of leaders from holding party or government positions for a certain period when indicted for corruption or certain other serious misconduct,

– Appointment of ombudspersons within each party to investigate allegations of corruption or misrepresentation of income and assets (e.g. resources siphoned off to relatives, friends and business partners).

– Public disclosure of political parties’ assets, income and expenditures on an annual basis.

Affirmative action to empower underprivileged groups: True democracy cannot thrive in a situation where large segments of a nation’s population feel that they are disenfranchised, second class citizens.

The Maoists have been able to take advantage of the disaffection of Nepal’s janajatis, dalitsMadhesis and other oppressed and marginalized communities, as well as women and other vulnerable groups.

Mainstream political parties must now adopt a policy of affirmative action to provide better representation of such groups in the party hierarchy as well as in provision of social services and economic opportunities in society at large.

The following might be some possible actions:

– Ensure fair representation of women and various geographic and ethnic groups in fielding candidates for local, district and national positions. Consideration should be given specifically to reserving a certain percentage of seats (up to 33 percent) in local, district and national level elected bodies to women candidates.

– Parties should include in their programmes how they will provide for special facilities for girls and students from depressed communities to get earmarked scholarships based on certain criteria for a limited period.

– Parties should judge their responsiveness to issues of social justice and economic and gender equality partly based on their own efforts and performance within the parties, including in their leadership positions.

Responsible behaviour of “loyal opposition”: None of the elected parliaments of the 1990s were able to serve out their full term. That was not the fault of the King or the Maoists. It was due to the unprincipled behaviour of parliamentary political parties.

As soon as a government was formed there were attempts to undermine and unravel it, both from within the party in power and by the opposition parties.

This unhealthy trend led to frequent changes in government; composition of jumbo cabinets; factionalism within parties and horse-trading for power and perks. The inability of political parties to serve as mature, responsible, loyal opposition gave democracy a bad name.

We must ensure that in future there are specific strictures built into the code of conduct of political parties that strongly discourage and penalize such behaviour. When they are out of the government, the parties have to learn to serve as responsible and loyal opposition, and wait for their turn until the next election.

Commitment not to politicize civil service and security forces:  A frequent criticism of the political parties has been that when they come to power they get into the habit of giving jobs to their party cadres and supporters, often subverting due process of civil service recruitment, promotion and transfers. This leads to politicization of civil service and substituting professionalism with favouritism.

While it is understood that in a democracy a party in power is entitled to fill certain policy level positions by political appointees, the integrity and professionalism of the civil service should not be undermined.

It is the fear of such politicization that has led some to worry about the police and security forces coming under the control of elected officials. The political parties must reassure the public that they will not seek to make the police, the army and the civil service subservient to their political whims and preferences.

All parties should also commit not to incite students and teachers to frequent strikes and disruptions of educational institutions in pursuit of non-academic, political demands.

Transparent Campaign Financing arrangements: Making fair and transparent campaign financing arrangements is a huge challenge in all democracies. It is a perpetual problem right here in the USA. And it is especially challenging in a country like Nepal.

In the past, some parties have condoned corruption in the name of raising funds for their political parties. Others have allowed individual candidates to flout agreed campaign financing norms.

To make democracy work is not always cheap. We must invest in it. It is clear that in Nepal, as in other democracies, we must provide for some state financing of electoral campaigns, based on agreed criteria, and limitation on private contributions for political parties and election campaigns.

Agreement on the Role of the Monarchy and the Maoists: The political parties need to come out with their bottom-line position vis a vis the Monarchy and the Maoists. They need to dispel people’s suspicion that they will be hoodwinked by the palace again, as they have been in the past. They also need to make it clear to the Maoists – and to the public – their pre-conditions for any strategic alliance with them.

Having jettisoned any reference to constitutional monarchy, or openly advocated for a republic, two of Nepal’s largest political parties have now put themselves in a seemingly uncompromising position regarding the role of monarchy.

Still people wonder what, if any, compromise will the 7 party alliance as a whole be prepared to make to accept a “ceremonial monarchy”. The parties need to explicitly lay down their terms for any compromise.

At present there is a presumption on the part of Nepal’s international friends that a political compromise is still possible to retain some form of a ceremonial monarchy. But the ground realities in Nepal seem to be shifting rapidly in favour of full-fledged republic. Many civil society activists and younger generation of party leaders are now taking an uncompromising position on lokatantrik ganatantra.

And even if the elder leaders of political parties so wished, they might no longer be able to persuade their younger cadres to compromise in favour of any form of monarchy. Nepal may soon reach a point of no return if the King continues to act in a manner that depletes any remaining support for a constitutional monarchy.

If the monarchy is jettisoned, there will be questions about how the Royal Nepalese Army will react and behave. It is important for the political parties to lay out their vision for the future of the military in a possible republican set-up, so that the monarchy is not replaced by a military regime or lawless chaos.

The issue of whether to go directly for a constituent assembly or to first temporarily reinstate the parliament for it to lend constitutional legitimacy to the call for a new broad-based government to conduct elections for a constituent assembly, also needs to be decided unambiguously by the 7 party alliance.

Regarding the Maoists, the political parties must come up with a politically clear, unified and consistent stand on how to deal with them. The parties should consider drafting a framework agreement, which might include some non-negotiable propositions, such as respect for universally agreed human rights, and a pluralistic, multi-party democracy.  There could then be a series of negotiable options for consideration on other matters of statecraft or policies.

For example, the precise powers of the King, if some form of a truly constitutional monarchy is retained; the command structure of the military; whether we should consider a federal structure of government; mixed proportional representation; affirmative actions in favour of women, dalits, janajatis, madheshis and other disadvantaged groups; a bi-cameral versus a unicameral parliament; direct election of the Prime Minister; structure of local governments, etc. can all be put forward for negotiation and compromise.

I believe that if the political parties would come up with such an agreed plan of action and code of conduct, they will have a chance to regain the confidence of the people.

Still I worry that the level of cynicism about the currently established leadership of the political parties is so high that the parties may need to contemplate some further radical measures.

For example, it would be very thoughtful and patriotic for the senior-most leaders of the political parties, especially those who have already had their chance to serve as heads of government, to gracefully step-aside, or assume honorific advisory roles, and make room for younger leaders to take charge.

The young, and so far untainted leaders, in turn, must reach across party lines and be the collective champions of “code of conduct” such as the one I have outlined, and agree to abide by it, no matter who is in a future government and who is outside the government.

Dear friends, that is why so many eyes and ears are on you here today. Those of us who are not involved in active politics, and who have no personal political aspirations – like yours truly – we look to you to take bolder leadership. Please be prepared to even challenge your senior leaders, challenge the old ways of doing politics that has alienated so many ordinary citizens.

A crisis of the magnitude that our dear Nepal is facing today demands acts of extraordinary courage and wisdom. I hope that all of you – and us – can rise to the occasion.

Thank you.

(Mr. Gautam is Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author in his personal capacity, and not necessarily those of the United Nations or UNICEF.)