Elections first step: Democracy in action

Democratic gains can be fragile. Sometimes countries take a step backward in their trajectories. In the 10 years since the Comprehensive Peace Accord, the path has, at times, been bumpy, but the trajectory has been positive

The number of democracies around the world nearly doubled in the last 25 years. In a democratic nation, general elections provide an opportunity for all voters to be heard equally and for governing officials to be held accountable for successes and failures.

This type of equality is what was envisioned in calls for a transition to an equitable democratic system in Nepal; calls which brought forth the Comprehensive Peace Accord, of which Nepal is marking the 10th anniversary this month.

This equal voice is what motivated the United States’ civil rights movement, and is what ensures that America’s government is “of the people, for the people, and by the people,” as former US President Abraham Lincoln said.

The trend towards this kind of equal voice in government is growing globally.

Elections are democracy in action. They provide an opportunity for people to think beyond their own interests and consider the interests of others and the greatest good for their communities, their regions, and their country.

Voters in the United States will soon select our future elected leaders, and at the same timecast an opinion on key decisions to guide our cities, counties, and states. For example, during the 2016 elections, Washington state residents are voting on whether carbon taxes should be assessed on local industries.

In California, residents will vote on increasing the minimum wage, public school board representatives, tobacco tax increases, and fees for hospital visits.

Over the coming year, Nepal too will face several elections to determine this country’s path forward. I am impressed by the recent voter turnout rates in Nepal – 78 percent of registered voters in 2013 – and I strongly encourage all Nepalis to register to vote and participate in the coming elections.

According to a 2015 public perception survey conducted by the University of Chicago, 84 percent of Nepalis agreed that elections in Nepal are free and fair. Both the United States and Nepal have a demonstrated history of conducting them.

Elections can only fulfill their role in democratic systems, however, if people vote. Through elections, citizens express their approval of certain values, policies, and actions, as well as their disapproval of others.

Will you back the candidate focused mainly on protecting his base constituency, or the one committed to realizing a more prosperous future for all Nepalis? Will you back the candidate who perpetuates conflicts of interest for personal benefit or the one who says of corruption “not on my watch”?

Will you vote based on ethnic or party lines or based on who has the best ideas, vision, or values? Will you actively inform yourself of the options to make these decisions?

Voting in elections does not miraculously result in a fully functioning democracy. Thomas Jefferson, one of the drafters of the US Constitution, said “self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight.

”While elected representatives are charged with carrying out key responsibilities of government, an accountable democracy can only be achieved if citizens remain actively engaged long after the voting day has passed – communicating needs and expectations to elected officials, insisting on transparency, and holding them to account once in office.

Democracies depend on this social contract between citizens and the government they choose to represent them.

Once elections pass, candidates’ roles change immediately. Winners no longer can limit their focus to their supporters, but must govern on behalf of everyone.

Their success will depend heavily on the sincere engagement of those who do not win to help advise and support the efforts of government to benefit the country. Playing the role of spoiler and undermining those in office only undermines the prospects for the country to succeed and the economy to grow.

Similarly, once the polls close, citizens’ continued engagement is crucial to ensure that elected officials keep their campaign promises, and turn their pledged vision for the country’s future into a reality. Building accountable government institutions is hard work, and can take generations to achieve.

President Obama has stated that he believes “in a liberal political order – an order built not just through elections and representative government, but also through respect for human rights and civil society, and independent judiciaries and the rule of law” and it is clear that this is a model that the majority of Nepalis also seek.

Still, democratic gains can be fragile. Sometimes countries take a step backward in their trajectories. In the 10 years since the Comprehensive Peace Accord, the path has, at times, been bumpy, but the trajectory has been positive.

The elections over the coming year will allow the country to conclude its democratic transition, address outstanding grievances, set the vision for the future, and establish the foundations on which sustainable and equitable development can thrive.

And so, on the eve of national elections in my country, I would like to stress that the United States reaffirms our commitment to a partnership with the Nepali people and your government.

May we forge together the firmest foundations for peace, stability and prosperity by exercising the fundamental democratic practice of elections and government accountability.

Teplitz is the US Ambassador to Nepal