International evidence suggests that in a corrupt political system, instead of elections controlling corruption, it is corruption that controls elections.
With the two-phased provincial and national elections around the corner, Nepal’s electoral politics is, literally, heating up in the cold winter. The power of money and muscle are on full display. If notes are being used to buy votes then votes are also being used to collect notes. Thus the so-called electoral alliances are nothing more than arrangements for buying and selling of votes in blocks. Literally and figuratively, both notes and votes will be counted in the upcoming elections.
We have adopted a mixed (mixed up?) system of election comprising direct and proportional elements. These systems represent notes and votes respectively. The politicians rely on votes to secure their seats under direct elections (FPTP) system and on notes under proportional representation (PR) system. The power of money is there for all to see, as business tycoons jostle to secure their seats under PR category. This newspaper has written of 35 big contractors who have managed to secure tickets. These contractors between them are running over 100 projects, worth billions of rupees.
Moreover, with political heavyweights contesting under FPTP system, elimination of a system of contesting from more than one constituency, and given the electoral alliances, electoral stakes have never been higher. Hence one can expect a full play of notes-for-votes and votes-for-notes this election cycle. Nepali businessmen, the interface between votes and notes, are reported to have switched off their mobiles to avoid chanda aatanka.
Theoretically, elections should act as an antidote to corruption. It provides an opportunity for the voters to elect honest politicians, punish the corrupt ones and establish political accountability, transparency and integrity. But this is not happening. In a corrupt system, instead of elections controlling corruption, it is corruption that controls elections. Electoral frauds like vote-buying, pork-barrel politics, violence and intimidation affect electoral outcomes—and more so when constituencies are made up of poor, illiterate, marginalized and disenfranchised minorities.
We do not have a culture of scientific research on anything, forget elections and corruption. I doubt anybody, including tens of thousands of election monitors, will be looking at the upcoming elections through the anti-corruption lens. But there is a plethora of literature abroad on the mystifying relation between corruption and elections. Let me summarize the findings of a few.
First, with more corrupt politicians contesting elections, instead of trying to punish the corrupt politicians, voters tend to stay away. There is thus a negative relationship between increased perception of corruption and voter turnout. Corruption has a dampening effect on electoral democracy. This has been consistently demonstrated in multiple cross-sectional studies. Therefore, providing more information on candidates (about their corrupt backgrounds) does not necessarily motivate voters to come out and vote. Instead it may dampen their spirit to participate in the democratic process, as they basically lose trust in the state and its politicians.
Second, there is also a contrasting view, that corruption increases voter turnout. By bribing voters and discouraging opponents, politicians mobilize voters and affect election outcomes. It may also be true that due to corruption reporting, more enlightened voters come out to fight corruption by exercising their right to vote.
Third, low voter turnout is not a foregone conclusion even when the perception of corruption is high. One way to increase turnout would be to ‘politicize’ corruption. The word politicization has negative connotation in our part of the world. But it is here used in case of political parties that are contesting elections on the plank of anticorruption. When parties contest elections on anticorruption agenda, it could have a positive effect on voter turnout.
Fourth, a research from Spain (general elections in 2011) suggests a more nuanced relationship between corruption and voter turnout. Where corruption is distributive—that is, voters do share the benefit from corrupt deals (from housing boom in this case)—then it need not affect voter turnout. Reporting of corruption scandals will then have no effect on election outcomes. Voters turn blind eye to corrupt politicians when they too benefit from corruption; they punish the incumbents only when they do not share the spoils. The voters can thus be as corrupt as politicians.
What to make of it?
Fifth, even more intriguing results emerge from a study of municipal elections in the Philippines where, due to high prevalence of nepotism, favoritism and questionable loyalty of bureaucrats, elections become more a contest between competing bureaucrats than between politicians, their proxies. Sixth, survey results from Mexico City suggest voter participate in elections increases when they are victims of corruption. This happens even in violent environments. Unlike in Spain where voters only participate when they are beneficiary of corruption, here increased participation is directly related to voter victimization.
The above findings are somewhat contradictory. But it will be interesting to see which of these hypotheses holds true in our elections. So far, BibeksheelSajha is the sole party fighting on the plank of anti-corruption, with the agenda of ending loot-tantra or kleptocracy. This is not to suggest other parties do not have anticorruption agenda. But compared to BSP, the articulation is mute or minimal. However, the problem with Rabindra Mishra, the coordinator, is that he could not differentiate between corrupt (sick person) and corruption (a disease). By swearing against the corrupt—bharastachari laai kira paros—his anti-corruption agenda is fundamentally disoriented: instead of fighting the disease (corruption) his anger is against the sick person (corrupt politician).
We also need to ask a fundamental question here: What is the point of barring Govinda Raj Joshi from contesting elections when Khum Bahadur Khadka continues to exert influence in Nepali Congress candidate nomination process? This shows that we lack a systematic approach to fighting corruption.
Ogling at eggs
Let me reiterate: Our problem will not be solved by plucking one or two rotten eggs to save the remaining lot from rotting; because even the crate we use to hold eggs is rotten. In a way, it will be pointless to observe electoral outcomes in terms of corruption so long as we continue to have corrupt crates. We can see this phenomenon in the way we appoint election commissioners, along partisan lines, the way we design election rules and, finally, the way we organize elections.
It is stupid to expect fair game when the very rule governing the game, plus the umpires, are corrupt. The credibility of the Chief Election Commissioner comes under question when on Day One he says the commission has already started printing ballot papers and on Day Two he makes U-turn and says he will respect court decree to print two sets of ballot papers. The media reported that the stupidity entailed a cost of Rs100 million to the national exchequer, as 1.7 million printed ballot papers went to waste. Had it been Thailand, the Chief Election Commissioner could have been indicted for “dereliction of duty”.