A culture of democracy

  • Local elections are essential to instilling democratic norms and values among the citizenry
- SEEMA PANDEY
A culture of democracy

Aug 11, 2014-

In Nepal, even pro-democratic citizens tend to communicate in a dictatorial manner, unwilling to accept differing views and notable in their obstinacy to not tolerate difference. I am referring to people’s comportment in a democracy: the perception and practice of one’s right to information and the tolerance of differing opinions and behaviour as such. The right to information, we must understand, is a ‘right’, and not a favour offered by public servants. For instance, it is almost impossible to argue with them, the common defensive statement one hears is ‘yestai ho Nepal ma’.

This is perhaps a mentality deep-rooted among the elderly populations, who lived or at least grew up under the Panchayat system. This culture of receiving, guarding and disseminating information under undemocratic norms is a gift of the autocratic regime that shaped such a mentality.

The right to information and the powers to choose, elect and evaluate have not been enjoyed to the fullest by Nepalis for a long time now. It has been 24 years that Nepal restored democracy and yet, a democratic culture and mentality have not come to dominate the autocratic individual mentality. A lack of accountability and tolerance of rampant corruption seems to indicate an inability to realise or internalise the cores of a democratic culture, rights and values in deed. Hence, what we see today seems to be the maintenance of the autocratic instinct in personal values. Of course, democracy is not a magic tool that instantly changes the way of being, but a process that facilitates the cultivation and practice of democratic culture.

Going local

The Ministry of Local Development has accepted and followed legal provisions as enshrined in the Interim Constitution, 2006; the Good Governance Act, 2007; the Right to Information Act, 2007 and their regulations with regard to maintaining transparency and making local bodies more accountable to promote service delivery in an effective manner. However, without proper elected representatives, most everything is in vain.

For the last 12 years, this situation has prevented the cultivation of a democratic culture, mainly for people living outside the major cities, towns and villages.  To substitute, a kind of syndicate of the major parties, called the All Party Mechanism (APM), was developed to work with at the local level, which has generally been accepted to have cultivated corruption.

Local bodies are representative institutions that touch the lives of the people and build democratic culture in citizens. The core assumption of decentralisation is that by bringing the government closer to the people, it allows representation and participation of stakeholders in planning, implementation and the management of development programmes, a notion also reflected in Resolution No 1929 of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, which defines people’s/citizen’s participation as an integral element in local, regional and national development plans and programmes for economic growth, social equity and regional balance.

Towards decentralisation

Since the introduction of democracy in 1951, Nepal has been pursuing a policy of involving people in the development of the country, especially in those areas where they have a direct stake through the pursuit of decentralisation as a development strategy. The current structure of local governance in Nepal, introduced after the restoration of democracy in 1990, defining the functions, duties and powers of local governments, was specified with the Local Self Governance Act (LSGA), 1999. A two-tier system, with Village Development Committees and Municipalities as the lower and the District Development Committees as the higher tier, was introduced to consolidate the state and national integration hand-in-hand.

With 3,913 VDCs, 58 municipalities and 75 districts, and out of 24 years of democracy, local election has taken place only twice. Keeping in mind that democratic culture is learnt through practice in a young democracy like ours, a great loss of opportunities can be imagined. If there had been three elections, at least 60,000 political aspirants would have gotten an opportunity to contest elections and enhance their skills, giving a platform for 18,000 local leaders to contest and engaging 20,000 local representatives countrywide.  

The cultivation of behaviours, norms and values generally happens through local practices. The geographic dimension of representation has a huge impact since the issues decided at local levels involve matters that have direct and immediate effects on the lives of the people there. Local elections are closer to the hearts, needs and desires of the people than national elections, and they largely affects the daily needs of citizens, like roads and transportation, schools, service delivery, neighbourhood safety and the like. This micro-level practice is the best teacher of democratic norms like seeking accountability, transparency, alternatives and

participation.

Embedding opposites

Good local governance and elections are essential for the proliferation of democracy and the embedding of the culture of democracy, which has not so far been internalised in the Nepali context. For voters living outside the major cities in small towns and villages, the face of the government is often the village head or the sub-district officer and an inability to practice democracy at the local level largely prevents one from realising the cores of that very culture.

With the All Party Mechanism, the opposite is taking root. Ordinary citizens are sometimes excluded from leading users’ groups, with leadership positions instead divided among party members. According to observers from The Carter Center, in Mugu, for example, positions are sometimes ‘pre-negotiated’ among the political parties prior to a community meeting that officially forms the group. Political parties meet in advance to decide on committee members and divide positions among themselves, with little decision-making involvement of apolitical

beneficiaries.

Local body elections have not been a priority for the state for very some debatable reasons. However, if a young democracy like Nepal seeks to embed the culture of democracy in the daily behaviour of people, the regular conduction of local elections is crucial.

Pandey holds a Masters in International Relations and Political Science from Universidade Fernando Pessoa, Portugal

Published: 12-08-2014 09:42

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