Saturday, April 12, 2008

Give Mao a Chance

By all rights Thursday's election in Nepal should be the model of a democratic process for a country that has just made the transition away from an absolute monarchy. True, it took an armed conflict to unseat that monarchy; but, when compared with the recent elections in Africa (not to mention the hanky-panky in our own last two Presidential elections), the Nepalese election was about as orderly and legitimate as anyone could have hoped; and that "anyone" included Jimmy Carter in his capacity as official observer. Nevertheless, on the basis of the latest BBC NEWS report of the results, it will be interesting to see the "official response" of the United States government:

The Maoists have won 14 out of 24 seats declared, and their leader has taken a seat in the capital, Kathmandu.

The party is also ahead in many other seats, for which partial results are coming through as the count proceeds.

The polls, for an assembly to re-write the constitution, are the first to test the Maoists at the ballot box after their 10-year guerrilla campaign.

I suppose the key question will be whether the armed conflict that led up to this election will trigger our we-don't-talk-to-terrorists knee-jerk response, however orderly the election may have been (not to mention that the election was not for leadership but for a representative assembly to prepare a constitution). Carter has been a recent victim of this response through his attempts to meet with representatives of Hamas, since our government prefers to view them as terrorists, rather than the party of officials legitimately elected in Gaza. One can understand his wanting to use the Nepalese election as an opportunity to take a few jabs back at his own government:

It's been somewhat embarrassing to me and frustrating to see the United States refuse among all the other nations in the world, including the United Nations, to deal with the Maoists, when they did make major steps away from combat and away from subversion into an attempt at least to play an equal role in a political society.

The real underlying question, however, will concern the nature of Nepalese Maoism in both theory and practice. After all some of the better (and more quoted) precepts of Mao's Little Red Book were cribbed from the Tao Teh Ching; but I doubt that anyone would confuse Maoism with Taoism. Besides, once Mao had achieved pretty much totalitarian control, those precepts mattered as little to him as the "Declaration of Principles" mattered to Charles Foster Kane as he became more successful and powerful. (For that matter has anyone taken a look at the "Ten things Google has found to be true" in light of some of their more recent activities?)

This is the point where most readers pull out Lord Acton's chestnut:

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

More relevant, however, may be a speech that William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, delivered on January 9, 1770, which included the line:

Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it; and this I know, my lords, that where laws end, tyranny begins.

It is good to remember Pitt, particularly while we are all watching John Adams, since he was able to use his "bully pulpit" to advocate the decision of the American colonies to fight for their independence. Presumably the Founding Fathers knew they had a friend in Pitt, and his personal philosophy may have been one of the influences behind drafting our Constitution on the basis of a need for separation of powers.

Who will influence the Nepalese assembly as they go through the same contentious experiences that eventually culminated in a Constitution that all thirteen former colonies were willing to ratify? We have no way of knowing. We do not even know if they plan to ask for assistance in this process from other governments with stable constitutions. However, if they do ask us for help, then it would be more than "embarrassing" (as Carter put it) for us to refuse it; it would be the folly of ideological myopia!

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