Sunday, September 04, 2005

Sumit Pokhrel On Democracy For Nepal

Designing Democracy: What works for Nepal?

-Sumit Pokhrel

Power struggle and regime changes have been the frequent phenomenon of the Nepalese politics. It has been more than 50 years after the long waited fall of autocratic Rana Regime in 1951, Nepal is yet to practice stable democratic rule. The vicious cycle of struggle to gain and re-gain power between monarchy and political parties, and recent entry of Maoist in this conflict has lead country towards total catastrophe. It is irony that all these factions claim to represent voice of general mass. In-between the ongoing conflict, the monarch has tried to portray himself as a savior of democracy in international community. He tried to justify his action of dissolving government on February 1 as an action against failure of then government to hold election and tackle the Maoist issue. However the inclusion of people with known reputation to being anti-democratic and loyal royalist as his associates, imposition of nation wide emergency suspending fundamental rights of people, detention of opposition leaders, and curbing the press freedom; king’s intentions are seriously doubted. While there is a need to question the king’s intent regarding democracy, those who believe in democratic rights should also question the parliamentary democratic system drafted after 1990. Is the constitution drafted hurriedly “to transfer sovereignty of nation in people” able to protect democratic rights?

There are many evidences today that the system copied from the Westminster-style parliamentary government in Great Britain has not been able to fulfill the expectations of people from completely different social and political culture. Democracy can only be established with the equitable share of power between different class, caste, and ethnic group and by providing equal social and economical opportunities. A stable democracy requires proportionate representation of opposition and minority. In, Nepal the class struggle exists due to its semi-feudal and semi-communal social structure. The unitary system of parliamentary democracy, which tends to centralize power in ruling elite neither represents the voice of general mass nor does it device any mechanism to address their problem. Centralization of power in unitary system can encourage corruption, misuse of power, and exertion of autocratic rule. In a country like Nepal, with its inadequate sociopolitical infrastructures in bureaucracy, judiciary, and military that is created by long history of non-democratic rule, the risk is escalated.

In the practice of parliamentary democracy, since the very survival of the government depends upon maintaining a majority, Members of Parliament (MPs) are far more involved in building an equation to maintain majority of their party. Leaders in Nepal have been accused of being pro-party rather than pro-people. Parties are busy building coalitions to serve their political interest and playing party politics to remain in power rather than addressing people’s problem. Prime-minister has used his power to dissolve parliament several times, at the same time parliaments have passed vote of no-confidence several times to oust ruling cabinet. Government has been dissolved at least three times when ruling party had majority in the parliament. The governments were dissolved only because of political ambitions and egoism of the major leading politicians within the party. Instability of system has been demonstrated by the fact that 9 governments failed in 10 years of democratic practice in Nepal.

To minimize risks of weak governance and instability, and ensure the equitable share of power, a different system of governance is needed, one that can address the grass root level issues of the large poverty ridden populace. Like Maoists have been saying perhaps we need a demolition of present establishments and new set of ideologies to reach out to the common man. During the initial phase of their campaign, Maoists were able to attach themselves with general people because their ideology coincided with the need of the common man. But propagating the idea that ideological revolution can only be brought by armed struggle, like Maoists do, is ignoring the will and well being of the very mass, which is looking for peaceful solutions. The ideological war needs to be fought by empowering people with knowledge and not by unabated and uncontrolled violence. Maoists have failed to understand that the ideological war cannot be fought by exerting fear in the people. Only way to win this war is by empowering people with true information, right education and awareness, and increasing their negotiation capacity.

The need of an hour today is to work towards establishing stable, decentralized, and representative democratic system. Such system can only be achieved by inducing appropriate check and balance mechanism. Whenever there is talk of constitution reform, either unitary British parliamentary system or American presidential system with separation of power or the French fifth republic with its presidential system is generally considered. The Swiss system with autonomous regional/ communal government and with many features of direct democracy is often overlooked. Nepal has much more in common to Switzerland where population, geographical, cultural diversity and a sense of collective identity are concerned, than Britain, US, or France. Not to forget, Switzerland is the country with one of the world’s highest per capita income and best lifestyle. Switzerland has always enjoyed very stable democracy, with very different foreign policy of non-alignment and neutrality.

Simply copying a constitution of one country does not work in another. It is not possible to conclude that one particular type of system will work in Nepal just because it has worked somewhere else because of its unique geographical, social, and economical structure. However, understanding different democratic institutions will help to design a political model that will suit the Nepalese need. With discussions, debate, and appropriate negotiation, Nepal should be able to formulate the constitution that will work best in Nepalese context. Some of the feature that needs to be discussed for successful democratic system is as follows.

Federalism for Decentralization: Equitable Power Sharing

Nepal is a land of great geographical and cultural diversity with different religion and ethnic groups. The constitution of Nepal should guarantee preservation of ethnic/communal liberty, which should manifest itself through distribution of power among local, regional and national government; among different class, caste, ethnic groups and religion. As the United states leaders saw in the 1780’s, as the Indian leaders saw in 1947, and as Belgium’s leaders realized in the 1970s, federalism is a very important means of enabling a heterogeneous population to live together in harmony. As is noted from recent political changes in Mexico and other Latin American countries, federal separation of powers can also help to make a party system more competitive when it allows opposition political parties to prove their quality by winning control of provincial governments (vertical check and balance). However, Swiss model might suite more to Nepal considering its smaller unit and powerful communal rule established to preserve small community, unlike large federations adapted to serve large territories and population. There are some direct benefits of considering federation in Nepal, for example to better represent regional and communal (class, cast, ethnic group, and religion) interest and by strengthening regional and local government which will strengthen other wise remote areas, Nepal can be approximately divided in to anywhere from 25-30 regional government along the line of 10-15 major ethnicity.

Decentralization can be achieved through proper allocation of power to individual (regional government) unit decided by proper negotiation. They are likely to include the power which requires extensive inter-local cooperation such as land use planning and control, regional education, health, water supply, waste disposal, regional road granting the local authorities constitutional power which would give them appropriate taxing power and revenue sharing. Caution should be taken that we are not talking about regionally based ethnic or cultural divides; what we are talking about is more self-governance for people who share a common culture. In essence it is not a question of assigning separate function to regional government but introducing regional components in a shared unit.

If we look into some cases of community forestry, hydro-power generation, income generation project implemented at grass root level in Nepal, it has been demonstrated that the administration is more efficient and effective in a homogeneous society compared to a heterogeneous community. The concept of federalism simply accepts that people understand and work better with people of similar socio cultural background.

In an age of globalization when it is very difficult for any society to resist its expansion and consumerism, it will be wiser to set priorities to achieve right balance rather than trying to isolate the nation. Through the mechanism of federalism where each small unit (regional and local government) is autonomous, regional government should be able to protect basic needs of people from negatives of free market economy, and monopoly of foreign direct investment. At the same time, the national government can harbor its advantages that are vital to raise nation’s tax base. Only requirement is the strategic planning and effective implementation at local, regional and national level.

Bicameralism for Ideological and Regional Representation

In government, bicameralism is the practice of having two legislative or parliamentary chambers. In Nepal, bicameralism existed in form of upper and lower house, however upperhouse had almost non-existing power. Provided the proper allocation of power inbetween these two chambers, bicameral model has merit of the check and balance mechanism.

Bicameralism in Federal system is a means of accommodating both the territorial and ideological dimensions of the nation’s polity. In this system, equal or at least more balanced representation of regions in a second chamber would give so-called peripheral “remote areas” a greater share in the government of the state than is possible under strict proportional representation or even under a territorial system, in which seats are apportioned strictly according to population.

Separation of Power: Appropriate Check and Balance

One of the most frequently suggested constitutional requirement for successful democracy is to sharpen the separation of powers. Mostly practiced in presidential democracy like that of USA and also practiced, though little differently in Switzerland, it is characterized by a clear division between parliament and government. This clear division between the government and parliament means that the head of executive body (president/ prime minister) cannot rely on a constant majority. Majorities are formed in parliament from different sides of the House through negotiation and influence and they come together to pass legislation. A readiness for compromise and the ability to reach agreement between all bodies are essential for this system to work.

The American presidential system president is head of the executive and is voted into power during elections held separately to those for parliament; where as in Switzerland Federal Council has seven members, elected by the Federal Assembly every four years. Its members are elected as individuals. The Council is not responsible to the Assembly, but serves a fixed term. The President of the Confederation is selected annually by the Federal Assembly from among the members of the Federal Council. The president/ prime minister in both cases is not a member of parliament. In the same way as parliament cannot vote the president out of office, the president cannot dissolve parliament. Only if the president/prime minister were to commit certain crimes would it be possible for him/her to be removed from office during an impeachment process.

Separation of power ensures, check and balance (horizontal) and stability of the government. Separation of power can further be enhanced by providing balanced role to monarchy, executive, legislative, and judiciary bodies.

Direct Democracy: Empowering People

A feature of the Swiss polity little noted by outsiders is the system of institutionalized consultation designed to keep the peace in a highly heterogeneous country. Under this system it is expected and usually written into law that when significant legislative or administrative changes are proposed, there will be widespread consultation with every group having an opportunity to express its views so that the end result that emerges has achieved support by consensus before it is brought to a vote.

Direct democracy has a significant and positive influence in promoting integration among citizens throughout the country and ensures that everyone in the very diverse population is permanently engaged with the political issues that affect them all. By using the instruments of direct democracy, any group can make their views heard in the political arena. They can oppose a law or a statute passed by Parliament by calling for a referendum. Raising concerns in this way leads to debate among the citizens that further encourages mutual understanding and sensitizes people to the needs and concerns of others. In short, direct democracy provides more power to general people than through people representatives.

Proportional Voting System: Fair Representation of Opposition and Minority

Proportional voting systems are designed to ensure that parties are represented proportionally in the legislature. The basic approach of proportional representation is simple: legislators are elected in multimember districts instead of single-member districts, and the number of seats that a party wins in an election is proportional to the amount of its support among voters. These systems were devised to solve the many problems caused by plurality-majority voting systems. As a rule, proportional voting systems provide more accurate representation of parties, better representation for political and racial minorities, fewer wasted votes, higher levels of voter turnout, better representation of women, greater likelihood of majority rule, and little opportunity for gerrymandering.

However, proportional voting usually results in coalition governments, not a single-party government, as there is more likeliness that the parties representing small group will have representative in legislation. Thus, government might be less stable. Stability of government can be achieved by direct election of prime minister and separation of the power.

Direct Election of Prime Minister: Enhancing Direct Democracy and Stability

Direct election of prime minister will help in power separation between executive and legislative body through mandate from general mass rather than people’s representative, giving more power to the people. As already been discussed separation of power will ensure appropriate check and balance, and at the same time will also provide greater stability giving full term to the prime minister unless he commits serious crime for which he can be impeached. There are evidences that the long continuous regime of an individual have tendency towards autocratic rule and it also inhibits possibilities to nourish rise of new generation of capable leaders. Thus fixing a two terms as eligibility to be prime minister might be a reasonable consideration.

Reformation of Judiciary, Bureaucracy, and Military

Good governance depends on existing infra-structure of the Judiciary, Bureaucracy, and Military. It is important to recognize that all of these three bodies have big influence on stability and sustenance of democracy in Nepal. Unfortunately, during last 10 years of practice of Democracy in Nepal, it has been realized that these mechanism are still under enormous influence of previous long non-democratic rules. Therefore a swapping reform in these institutions is very important to establish democracy in Nepal.

Road Map to Reach Consensus

The proposed system of decentralization, stability, proportionate representation and power sharing, and check and balance addresses general ideological stands of all the major political factions in Nepal. Thus, this system can be integrated in a road map to reach consensus and break the cycle of ongoing conflict. Maoist’s idea of revolution of breaking class struggle can only be achieved by empowering each community and individuals in that community. Revolution by power sharing is the major focus of the proposed system. The focus of the proposed system is also to protect democratic rights of people. Proposed system ensures freedom to express and choose, equal social and economical opportunities, representation of opposition and minorities (representation of every class, cast, ethnic group, and religion) to greater level than existing unitary system. All the political entities/ powers that believe in democracy can see the advantage of this system in Nepalese system. Monarchy has expressed its concern as inability of current system to provide stability, and control increased party politics. The proposed system ensures proper check and balance mechanism (horizontal: sharing power between executive, legislative and judiciary bodies, and vertical: local, regional and national government), thus will put more pressure on political leaders to perform for the people rather than the party. Monarchy should also realize that its popularity remains in being constructive critique of the ruling parties but not by assuming the responsibility of ruling itself.

The first step of process to reach any sort of consensus should start by initiating dialogue between different political forces. After creating a conducive environment (halt arm struggle/ cease fire, respect human rights, and disarming the rebels) all the parties should decide upon constitutional assembly. Draft a constitution in atmosphere of vigorous debate, discussion, negotiations and public participation. Referendum should be held to get mandate from people to decide upon any constitution.

All the interested parties who want to see peace and prosperous Nepal should wage a campaign to push all the parties into negotiation. Strategies should be adopted to encourage liberal faction in each party to pursue peace process to reach consensus by applying pressure on their leaders. Particularly, all the political parties in Nepal instead of demonstrating and protesting for all the wrong reasons to come back into power, should understand the need of an hour and mobilize their resources to achieve stable democracy in Nepal. Stable democracy is only possible through appropriate power sharing mechanism and fair representation.

No comments: