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Nepal’s Democratic Experiment and Struggles with Corruption

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Udaya R. Wagle
September 30, 2022

Corruption, in the form of fraudulent, dishonest or illegal actions of public officials for private gain, has historically challenged governance. Since those in public positions have a chance to abuse or misuse power when transparency and accountability is lacking, democratic systems with greater political freedom and civil liberties are able to control corruption more effectively (see figure).

What happens when countries with a deep and pervasive culture of corruption embark on a democratic path? The answer: Progress can stall on both fronts. While not all contexts, players band processes are alike, the struggles of Nepal in democratic reform and corruption control can speak for many other developing countries.

Nepal has undergone enormous political changes during the past seven decades. The independence movement of the mid-20th century swept away the century-long family rule of the Ranas under a captive monarchy. The multiparty electoral system installed as a result was discarded a decade later by the king aspiring to be an active ruler. Three decades of the “party-less” electoral system that followed was quashed in 1990 with reintroduction of the multiparty democracy with constitutional monarchy. The country became a democratic republic in 2008 by overthrowing the monarchy entirely. Albeit lacking details, this is a major political experiment in and of itself.

The recent move to democratic republicanism ushered in a new era with creation of seven independent provinces and an unprecedented level of decentralization to local governments. The federal structure mandated by the constitution promulgated in 2015 remains an unfinished business on separation of power, bureaucratic reform and fiscal decentralization.

Fighting corruption has also been a part of this democratic experiment. The Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) was established in 1972 as a constitutional body responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases of corruption. This anti-corruption body accountable to the king previously and prime minister currently, however, is no match to the deeply rooted culture of corruption throughout the bureaucratic and political system. The public is accustomed to paying bribes for such basic public services as land registration, agricultural inputs, business licenses, driver licenses and marriage certificates. Special favors are curried in lowering taxes, customs and other forms of government dues. Government vendors and contractors build-in kickbacks of up to 50 percent in their procurement, construction and service contracts. Placement and transfers to lucrative places and opportunities for foreign travel and missions come with a cost. Media outlets frequently capture cases of self-enriching abuses in issuing import licenses, permitting export of migrant labor and licensing and investing in educational and healthcare businesses.

Governance has remained highly volatile especially under the multiparty system with over 25 turns of prime ministers occurring since 1990 alone. While the proportional electoral system has necessitated coalition governments and power sharing, fights are intense for an absolute power over the specific ministerial portfolios. Not only do office-bearers see a very small window of opportunity to generate enough resources to run their political machines and campaigns, but they also feel an obligation to secure fortunes for their families, relatives and cronies. Self-enrichment occurs at such a magnitude and depth that career bureaucrats are deployed to orchestrate and carryout deals, with disruptions reported in procurement, construction or other initiatives when governments change.

The republican setup has added provincial cabinets, legislatures and departments to the otherwise centralized political and bureaucratic apparatus. While the idea is to decentralize power and bring public service decisions closer to the people, the nodes of decisions in which abuses and misuses can happen have also been added manifold.

The per capita GDP of a little over US$1,200 makes reasonable the government pay scale of over US$5,000 per year to mid-career employees. The way society treats this pay scale, however, is as a base wage for those on commissions or tips, justifying the ground for self-enriching behavior. Newly powerful political and bureaucratic elites including in the police and army see a value in using government employees as their security and domestic helpers. Employing family members as trusted staff and advisors allows secrecy of otherwise illegal and unethical decisions, whereas close circles enjoy unlimited access to public resources such as vehicles, space, equipment and personnel.

Theoretically, the democratic electoral system promotes such core public service values as common good, democratic governance, integrity and humility. The practice, however, has been to ignore them entirely and use power for private gain. The public glorifies the riches amassed through corruption and the civil society has grown so numb that the major media outlets do not even publish opinion pieces on corruption. The culture of impunity is widespread as cases investigated and probed by the CIAA are frequently dropped, under political pressure, for lack of concrete evidence. Whereas the country is in the middle of South Asian countries on Corruption Perception Index, views of the public participating in the corruption perceptions survey conducted by the Transparency International may not fully capture the reality.

Designated “partly free” by the Freedom House, Nepal is not alone in this vicious cycle of “authoritarian democracy” and corruption. The loyalty test applied to CIAA and other key judicial appointments explains why abuses at the highest level are rarely captured, making hollow any commitment to control corruption. The historically centralized structure of governance, civil service, police and army has yet to be reformed. As the country prepares for its second general election under the 2015 constitution, whether the democratic experiment has failed to control corruption or the deep culture of corruption has prevented from democratizing remains an open question.

Author: Udaya R. Wagle is Professor and Director of the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Western Michigan University

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