We stepped off the bus and ran across the busy night road. A woman officer opened the small door to a compound that served as police headquarters for a large metropolis located in the southern Terai region. The walkway to the inner building was dark from a power outage. Our group had come to Nepal to research challenges to peace building.
The superintendent graciously agreed to answer our questions about activities in his jurisdiction. After a few statements about gender disparity in the police force and the status of trafficking, the superintendent made a statement that captured my attention.
“Government now works for the people. In the past it was feudal so everyone worked for the government.”
Though Nepal has had a tumultuous relationship with democracy at best, it still yearns and fights for it. When our group talked to people in Nepal, there was some disagreement on what type of democracy should be used - a strong executive-presidential system versus a parliamentary-prime minister - but almost everyone was in agreement that representative democracy was the future system of government.
The elected representatives and the party leaders have been overwhelmingly from the upper castes and are usually large landowners, even within the Maoists. The 2008 Constitutional Assembly elections reserved a certain percentage of seats for women, Dalits, and other marginalized or underrepresented groups; but this has not solved the issue of bad governance. We heard from WOREC, a women’s organization in Kathmandu, that women officials are forced to vote with their party line, even if the provision will hurt women. The elites of the political parties are firmly in control and expect their affiliates to do as they are told, much like the relationships that existed even before Nepal began experimenting with democracy.
If democracy and the elected officials are not bringing about real reforms, how does change occur in Nepal, and how does Nepal then create a new relationship with democracy and political leaders? I believe holding corrupt politicians accountable to their constituents and education reform could be steps in the right direction.
During our interviews almost everyone mentioned the rampant corruption in the political system but no one discussed how to curb the practice. It seems to have become an accepted part of the political landscape. Some interviewees said there was nothing to be done since the justice system is tied up at the moment – everyone is waiting for the new constitution. The police superintendent had mentioned that sometimes they catch criminals but are forced by the political parties to release them. I unfortunately did not receive an answer to why this has been allowed and do not know what needs to be done to change this practice. I do think that if politicians are held accountable in a court of law, it may send the message that the politicians work for the people and not the elites in the party leadership.
Education reform could also help strengthen democratic institutions in Nepal. Presently 1/3 of the males and 2/3 of the females are illiterate. It is hard to put pressure on politicians through letters or filing formal complaints when reading is an obstacle and political corruption has reached down to the level of local schools.
While in Bara, our group was able to talk to a local journalist who had filed a report on a school secretary election. Many of the political parties had spent millions of Nepalese rupees in the attempt to sway the election towards their favor – money that could have been spent on educating the students. We were fortunate to meet an organization in Bara, the Jan Jagaran Youth Club, which successfully got some schools in the area designated as zones of peace. This will hopefully restrict political and ideological involvement in education.
At present, political parties control or influence many aspects of Nepalese society instead of being influenced by the Nepalese people. This situation needs to be reversed. People are resorting to bandhs (general strikes) and armed opposition to create the change that democracy was supposed to bring. Some politicians may even be sincere in their efforts to help the people they represent, but are forced to capitulate to the elite party leadership.
I believe a new relationship is needed between citizens and politicians where the citizens can force the parties to work together to create a better Nepal. The citizens must have the power to remind the politicians, “The government now works for the people.”
Joel Post was in Nepal for a two-week field course titled “Challenges to Peacebuilding in Nepal” led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Joel’s blog is part of a series of reflections by Dr. Iyer and her students on the challenges to building peace in this country after a decade long war. -Ed.
About the author: Joel Post is a graduate student in International Policy Studies – Conflict Resolution at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He has a B.S. – Education degree from the University of Missouri – Columbia and has over five years of professional experience in Asia.