Sunday, 19 September, 2021

Democratic Competence Key To Political Leadership


Mukti Rijal

Recent political developments in Nepal do attest to the fact that democracy is here to stay as it has been accepted as the formal rule of the political game, especially in the transition and changeover of the government leadership. The departure of KP Sharma Oli as prime minister voluntarily in adherence of the verdict of the Supreme Court indicates that political leaders regardless their stature and ideology do follow, abide by and uphold the norms and values of democracy. It shows that Nepal is in an age of maturing democracy where political leaders, however, big and powerful they may be, accept the democratic rule of the game and cannot afford to stick to their position flouting the basics of law.

Smooth power transfer
Robert Dahl, a renowned US political scientist known as authority in liberal democracy, has maintained that the smooth and peaceful handover of power is one of the key yardsticks of growing democracy. According to him, key criteria that are essential for a democracy to grow and mature as a stable and recurring process include fair and free elections, freedom of expression; access to alternative sources of information that are not monopolised by either the government or any other single group and so on. Moreover, freedom of association to form and join political parties and interest groups is another very important element of democracy.
Almost five decades ago, only a handful states in the Western Europe and other parts of the world had been democracies consistent to Dahl’s definition of the term. But today democracy has become a standard form of governance in the countries where dictatorships had ruled the roost during the immediate past. In fact, in a world that is going to be increasingly democratic, the regimes that resist democratisation process produce dysfunctional and unstable societies and leaders boastful of their self-harboured ego set bad precedence and also face disgraceful exit.
But democratic countries too often become a kind of unstable societies producing disenchantment, disarray and despair among the people. Why this frustration with democracy occurs among the people in a growing way is a question that needs some deliberation. To answer this, the eminent political scientist again from the US who had passed away a few years ago Samuel P. Huntington in his monumental work titled "The Third Wave of Democracy" makes some prophetic observations noting the fact that governments and leaders produced by elections can turn to be inefficient, corrupt, shortsighted, irresponsible dominated by special interests and incapable of adopting policies demanded by the public good.
Moreover, experiences and developments in the countries like Nepal do indicate that a change of government leadership cannot make any difference in the culture of governance where democratic illiteracy is endemic both political leaders and the people. Democracy cannot function well only with the availability of apex level democratic institutions like elected national legislature, independent judiciary and constitutional bodies such as election commission, public service commission and so on. Leaders have to be democratic, democratically enlightened and imbibe into democratic orientation which should be reflected in their practices and behaviours. Existence of bare supply side institutions to provide superstructures of democracy is not enough for a democracy to function and deliver results. The demand side activities represented by civic initiatives, engagement and oversight are basic in making democracy functional and result oriented.
The preconditions for successful working of democracy have been that people should be aware of their rights and responsibilities to reflect that they are democratically literate and minimum democratic competence. Citizens should actively engage to demand accountability and responsiveness of the government institutions and leadership. Moreover, civic participation and engagement can foster only if public authorities do respond to civic inputs and feedback in a constructive and positive way. Moreover, protection and support need to be guaranteed for the role of independent and legitimately organised civil society in advocacy and monitoring of public affairs.
Civic participation should be promoted and enabled by fostering mutual respect between state and civil society. Equally effective participation of all groups, including those with particular interests and needs such as young people, the elderly, and people with disabilities or minorities, need to be enhanced. Public authorities should plan and enhance civic participation and clearly define the objectives, actors, process and timeline in ensuring it. 

UN resolution
Needless to say, education for political and social citizenship should be made an integral part of formal and informal education system. In fact, the United Nations General Assembly passed the resolution on education for democracy and citizenship in 2012. The UN resolution on education for democracy and citizenship refers to the Charter of the UN and recognises the right to education which is enshrined in the international treaties including Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and so on. The UN resolution on education for democracy is linked meaningfully to other global initiatives including the Declaration on the Right to Development.
Since Nepal has been a party to the UN resolution, the country should undertake various measures in promoting democracy and civic education to ensure that both political leaders and citizens are socialised into the core values and practices of rule of law, democracy and federalism. This can ensure that citizens have the needed competence to build pressure into political leadership to abide by and uphold democratic principles and demand their accountability from local to the federal level. In fact, political leaders should not consider democracy as their right to rule the people in turns and serve their selfish interests bending the norms and values of rule of law and democracy.

(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow.