Print Edition - 2017-05-14  |  Free the Words

Return to direct democracy

  • A truly democratic society is a community deeply engaged in local decision-making

May 14, 2017-

Local elections have been heralded as a return to genuine democracy and a more accountable system of decision-making that can deliver better, more inclusive and more transparent public services and infrastructure for the benefit of the general population.

There are big expectations with the tangible impacts the local elections will generate. The new local bodies hold considerable powers and directly touch the lives of the people. We should remind ourselves that democracy is not simply casting ones vote on election day, but something much deeper. A truly democratic society is a community of people deeply engaged local decision-making. It is a place where citizens, regardless of their level of education, feel compelled to have their voices heard so that better action can be taken.

Fostering public involvement

The task of governing is given to elected citizens who have a mandate to govern on behalf of the citizens who elect them. Liberal democracies around the world are founded on this principle. Since the end of the Second World War, this model has been serving its purpose, allowing citizens to periodically choose their candidates. But this model is not perfect and it is not immune from criticisms, such as the fact that it has been conceived in western countries to best suit the socio-economic and political evolution of western societies. 

Scholars and activists have been calling for a return to a more direct form of democracy where citizens have a bigger role to play in the shaping of public affairs. Direct democracy can mean different things at the same time. It can mean radical forms of direct participation in the public life to hybrid models that can combine elements of representative democracy with a more accentuated participation of citizens.

In an era of fast internet and smart phones, we should also take into consideration the role that technology can play in fostering public involvement in decision making. One extreme model is the one used in the self-governing towns of ancient Greece where elected officials were prevented from turning into “professional” politicians. Also, all the major decisions were taken only after thorough consultation and debate involving all those entitled to vote. Beautiful as it might sound, this model in its integral form is too utopist to be achieved.

There are certainly many other ways to have a stronger direct democracy in place: for example, you have the Swiss model where locals are often called to take a stand through referendums that are held on decisions of vital national interest but also on more localised issues.

Participatory budgeting

Most of these forms of direct democracy would require special laws to be framed in a constitution that supports participatory forms of policy making. None of this would be practical or possible in the current context of Nepal. I am advocating a more practical and achievable form of participation that stems from the genuine desires of citizens to first understand issues and express their opinions. Engaged communities could be established throughout Nepal; these would need to be based on the principles of accountability and participation. Local bodies must be responsive to local needs and offer people places where they can express their views, which will then be taken into consideration before official deliberation. One way to do this is through the concept of participatory budgeting where certain levels of participation and transparency are established on the way resources are allocated and spent. We are not talking about overtly complex ways of doing things. For example, the concerns of the people should be heard through consultations before allocating certain resources for public work. It is about making sincere efforts to listen to the people and being ready to change plans if problems are highlighted or better ideas are proposed.

Better forms of governance will also come from publishing the expenses incurred by different sections of a local body thanks to simple but “real” social audits. Participatory budgeting can also be a progressive alternative and include real participatory planning and decision-making. It can be done when citizens are truly entitled to spend money the way they want and can propose and vote for new initiatives or infrastructure. Belo Horizonte in Brazil was the pioneer in this advanced form of participatory budgeting.

In Nepal there are plenty of top down accountability and participatory regulations. External development partners have been investing huge amounts of money in good governance at local levels. Moreover, there is already a tradition of 

consensus building that stems from longstanding cultural practices. 

Now it is time to leverage existing regulations and donor-led projects to start a new era of local governance. This is based on common practices that can also be implemented informally to start with and gradually institutionalised. While having an open government inclusive mobile app can make the process stronger and easier to understand, going back to old traditions of public consultations and public hearing may be a better idea. The “good governance” initiatives already in place can help with setting standards and re-institutionalising ancient bottom-up procedures. However, they won’t be decisive in making local government functional and effective.

Instead, what will make a difference will be the level of commitment and ownership shown by local youths, elders and other members of the communities alike to take the lead and push for more participation, accountability and transparency locally.

Future local office holders have huge tasks ahead of them. We need to have local communities fully on board to make sure that federalism will not fail and generate even more disillusion with the way decision-making works in Nepal.


- Galimberti is co-founder of ENGAGE and editor of Sharing4good

Published: 14-05-2017 08:24

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