Immature democracy : What good will it do?

A clear preference for democracy is evident in its acceptance and expansion around the world. While democracy is a multi-faceted concept, sovereignty calls for competent citizenry, responsible state and proper resource allocation mechanisms. Following the April revolution, concern for legitimacy, accountability and participation in the democratic process is gaining ground, but there has been no compatible progress on the democratic front, or in political and institutional reforms to increase direct participation of citizens in policy and decision-making process. Even positive aspects of the democratic process have been undermined by party leadership.

Strengthening democracy entails going through a long and complex process of building state institutions. Democracy, by its nature, is supposed to reflect disagreements and conflicts. But the failure to develop a conceptual framework for citizen participation by institutionalising ties between state and non-state actors has left Nepal with “partial” or “undemocratic delegative democracy”, particularly in the absence of actors who can transform policies and institutions into political resources.

Nonetheless, Nepal has never enjoyed quality governance, which consists of three dimensions: system persistence, inclusiveness and effectiveness. An accountable government responsive to its citizens can be set up through electoral process; its absence only exacerbates the lack of adequate institutions, excessive legislation and formalities, patron-client nexus, and other cultural bottlenecks and characteristics.

Democracy leads towards inclusion, enabling citizens to participate directly and indirectly. By any measure, people now have an opportunity to engage in a constitutional mechanism which can dampen aristocratic values and discriminatory social practices with distinctive changes in ground rules. This should be done to make the mechanism vastly different from the old ‘stakeholder democracy’.

In the absence of strong state structures, social constructivist understanding and institutional credibility, democracy post-royal regime has at best been a mixed blessing. Some believe that democracy in an ethnically diverse society can indeed be fostered by broad-based, aggregative and multiethnic political parties. But the fragile institutions of political parties are endangered by excessive clout of their leadership. As a result, they are not successful in bringing about attitudinal and behavioural changes among the people. The issues of power, politics and ground realities can be comprehended by the way the electoral process is progressing. Democratic ideal is essentially about a core set of values such as political autonomy, equality of interests and reciprocity. Although the quest for freedom is universal, it is not the top priority when people have to fear for their very survival.

It is too early to draw conclusions on long-term effects of the CA elections. If it acts as an instrument of democracy and can help institutionalise peace and democracy, it can be assumed that there is a link between citizens’ choice and their participation in policy making. Even if the CA polls succeed in achieving and maintaining peace, its ultimate outcome would not be evident until second or third general elections under a new system. Free elections are a prerequisite for instituting legitimate power flows and making the state adhere to the rule of law. This will, in turn, bolster state capabilities through administration, market and civil society and permit broad participation. These three sectors are crucial to building sustainable political and economic networks that help shape the state and enhance justice and political legitimacy.

While there is no consensus on what constitutes free and fair elections, Mackenzie puts forward four prerequisites: a) independent judiciary to interpret electoral laws, b) competent and non-partisan administration to conduct elections, c) well organised political parties that can present their policies, traditions and candidates before the voters and d) general acceptance of rules of the game. Many have argued that in addition to free and fair election and counting, the political parties must get an opportunity to compete on equal footing, all people should have equitable access to media, political environment must be free of intimidation, and public grievances must be settled promptly and justly. Another key element is monitoring of elections by national and international observers who can play a significant role in boosting public confidence in democratic transition.

Consensus should not only be directed at acquiring political goals. CA elections must be viewed as an instrument of citizens’ influence associated with a vision for building legitimate political system rather than to reward or punish incumbents. Until the old structures that reward vested interests are dismantled and replaced by new ones, neither a “democratic society” nor “free and fair elections” can be realised.

Thapa is professor of Politics, TU