Print Edition - 2015-02-01  |  Free the Words

Modernising democracy

  • Nepal requires a strong, stable federal government with a directly-elected PM or President
Modernising democracy

Jan 31, 2015-

Modern democracy remains steadfast in societies once it’s three inventions—federalism, protection of individual rights and liberty, and the concept of civil society—are in place. These are also known as the pillars of modern democratic governance. The philosophic and political revolutions that began in the 17th century and reached their peaks in the late 18th century in two different sets of events—the American Revolution and the subsequent constitutional experience, and the French Revolution and the subsequent Bonapartist experience of France and Europe—reflects these inventions.

The American revolutionary experience and its extensions generated practical ways to achieve the proximate ends of federalism, individual rights and liberty, and helped foster the concept of civil society. The French revolution experience and its fallout throughout Europe and ultimately the rest of world generally sought democracy in the opposite direction and was far less successful. Since its inception, it is the proper combination of the three that has made democracy truly possible and increased participation of the people in democratisation as well as public policy and decision-making processes.

Ideal federalism

Ideal federalism opposes majority and minority forms of governance because it was created to ensure true democratic rights for the permanent minority. However, the concept of the federalism has been mistakenly interpreted by Nepali political society for last several years. Federalism in Nepal is more than simply intergovernmental relations and decentralisation. Moreover, it is even more than the linking of constitutional entities into a larger whole to maintain both self-rule and shared-rule. Federal democracy is a constitutional partnership and power-sharing agreement on a non-centralised basis. It is not simply about taking decisions through a majority, but creating a balance of interests, voices, and diversity in such a way there is no permanent majority. People have more than one interest and therefore are part of different minority and majority coalitions at different times. This is why federal democracy emphasises constitutional pluralism and power-sharing as the basis of a truly democratic government.

At the time of designing federalism, its opponents will not seek to design an ideal form of federalism because federalism is also a consociation mechanism between national and local governance, and such undemocratic individuals will wish to retain power at the centre. This reality has often proved a challenge for transitional societies while developing federal constitutions. Democracy debates in Nepal have been dominated by Jacobin (or simple majoritarian) and West-minster (parliamentary) democracies because Nepali politics is more elite-centric and these two models of democracy are more open to majoritarian rule.

The discussions and decision-making process of the first Constituent Assembly (CA) were dominated by non-CA members, who were indeed advocates of these two elite-driven democracy models. It is needless to say that the same elites are leading subsequent debates in the second CA. This decision-making process will exist forever unless an ideal form of federalism is developed. Unfortunately, things are not moving in such a way and it is clear that decisions are going to be made by the top in our so-called representative CA.

Monopoly and ethnicity

In Nepal, it has been argued that the monopoly of politics has to be stopped if we wish to see all sectors grow independently and effectively. There is no sector left in Nepal that politics has not infiltrated. Each individual must rely on certain political parties if they wish to have their demands fulfilled. Competent individuals or the bureaucracy do not get a chance to work freely if they have no political party backup. Academics and healthcare services are also becoming a lucrative business for political elites. Thus, federalism is now being criticised by elites because it counters this political monopoly. Disparate units having governmental powers offer arenas where the parties and their factions might find themselves in the minority.

Similarly, on the opposite end, ethnic politics has become a serious challenge in the process of state building in Nepal. Theories of ethnic outbidding suggest that we should be profoundly pessimistic about the health of multi-ethnic democracies. Ethnic politics may be good for the political system because it is inclusive, but it could also be bad for the same system because it allows the most prominent individuals to build vast and corrupt patronage networks. Federalism with a parliamentary system of governance could increase corrupt patronage networks because it too is elite-centric. Oligarchs can form bonds with corrupt ethnic leaders for their own vested interests, as they can with everyone else. Once ethnic leaders are encircled by corrupt individuals and oligarchs, they may forget minority rights and individual liberty.

Thus, the Jacobin and Westminster forms of democracy are the best choices for oligarchs. There is no challenge to ethnic politics in modern Nepal because they have their roots, their associations are stronger than ever, and each ethnic group is a minority when it comes to the national sphere. However, their associations represent a substantial population and such groupings are meaningful when it comes to elections.

Back to parliament

Rubén Ruiz-Rufino, a lecturer in international politics at King’s College in London, writes that minority voices are heard more in a parliamentary democracy when the nation has a powerful president. Additionally, the proportionality of an electoral system increases satisfaction with democracy for those minorities that either do not have any political representation at all or whose political party is small. When the ethnic political party is large, less proportional electoral systems boost satisfaction with democracy. Unfortunately, such groundbreaking researches find no place in ongoing political debates in Nepal. Instead, politicians in Nepal have often argued for a so-called ‘reformed parliamentary’ model as the best political system to represent multi-ethnic voice and guarantee religious harmony.

This argument is not supported by research. Vulnerable politics, agenda-less fragile alliances, majority and minority ethnic politics, and geopolitical conflicts are major challenges to our democracy. Accordingly, there will be greater chances of secessionist voices if we have weak federal governance at the center. The resolution of these problems requires a strong and stable federal government with a directly-elected president or prime minister, who would be accountable to the people.

Paneru is a faculty member at Strayer University, Virginia, the US

Published: 01-02-2015 09:24

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