Civic Engagement In Electoral Politics

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Nepal is all prepared to conduct democratic elections for federal and provincial parliaments on November 20. This is for the second time that the democratic exercise is being conducted in Nepal following the promulgation of federal democratic constitution. This will not only lead to the smooth and peaceful handover of power to those elected by the adult citizens but also clearly indicate that Nepal is set to move forward on its course to institutionalise democratic ethos and institutions. In fact, the real intent of these democratic exercises and practices has been to ensure that the consent of the governed is secured through democratic process and procedures to ensure legitimacy and ownership. 

This electoral exercise periodically conducted in a democracy is predicated upon the premise that those governed should be allowed to have their un-coerced say and participation in choosing their representatives to govern. Moreover, such exercise also makes the relationship between state and citizens further legitimised, consolidated and strengthened. It also offers structures and spaces of interfaces between ordinary citizens and the state authorities. 

Communication

But it is found that the interface between citizens and state authorities has not been adequately fostered in Nepal despite electoral exercise conducted every five year. Even local, provincial and federal governments instituted according to the federal democratic principles seem not cognizant of the need to have dialogue and communication among themselves. Most worrying part is that the state authorities including the elected representatives spare little time to communicate and dialogue with citizen stakeholders and give a hearing to their interests, concerns and grievances.        

The governing mechanism and process is skewed against the interests and aspirations of citizens. The crash interests and whims of politicians and bureaucrats do prevail and dominate at all levels. The policy legislation process is so bureaucratic and top down that the apex organs of the federal government such as executive and legislatures rarely do consult with sub-national governments (provincial and local) while formulating policies on the subjects that fall within the concurrent jurisdictions. The local government stakeholders do complain time and again that the federal government has bypassed and encroached upon their jurisdictions. Holding consultation with citizen stakeholders and soliciting views of civic forums and groups on the issues of general interests is rarely carried out. As a result, civic aspirations have been grossly neglected    while taking administrative decision and enacting laws in the parliament. 

Most deficient part in our political and administrative system is that the public officials and authorities hold and control the public information in a very opaque way.  Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz describes it as the entrenched asymmetry of information. He explains its consequence not only in economy but in political realm as well. Just as asymmetries give managers the discretion to pursue policies that are more in their interests than in the interests of the shareholders. The asymmetries of information allow the state officials to pursue the willful and indiscriminate discretion to implement policies that are more in their interests than in the interests of the citizens. Access of citizens to information is required for meaningful participation in decision making   especially in producing public goods and services. It is therefore that the citizens should be endowed with democratic competence to engage with the state institutions to seek accountability and claim effective and efficient services from public service providers.

 Nepal enjoys an enabling legal framework to have a regime to guarantee access to information.    The institutional and legal infrastructures like the Right to Information Act, Local Government Operation Act, Good Governance Act, and the National Information Commission, among others, are in place. They are undoubtedly the important arsenals for a transparent, participatory and open democratic system. However, their implementation is weak and poor. As a result, public organizations and agencies fail to deliver services to the people. Moreover, they are not subjected to civic scrutiny, sanction and discipline for their non-performance.  The informed discussions on the policies being pursued and projects being implemented are hardly the case. The absence of the informed democratic dialogue, deliberation and inputs has created the agency problems both at the local and federal levels.

The legal and institutional frameworks like Right to Information Law and Good Governance Act can yield positive outcomes only when they are effectively implemented and put to practise in a supportive social and institutional setting. The institutional design for transparency and accountability in itself is not sufficient to produce results. They should be coupled with awareness, knowledge, capacity of the both government officials and citizens- for information sharing and engagement. The information access regime comprises many aspects and dimensions of public decisions and allocation of resources. However, this information is not properly shared and made transparent.  As a result, citizen stakeholders are not fully aware and informed to hold their representatives to account during the elections. 

Political willingness

Moreover, political willingness is utterly lacking and the culture of secrecy reigns supreme. In fact, it is necessary that Right to Information Law should be implemented effectively as a process and tool to build vigilant citizenry. This will contribute not only to enhancing integrity and probity in the political and administrative institutions and leadership but also strengthen citizen-state relations. If communication between citizens and state authorities is not institutionalised, periodic elections will prove to be a nominal ritual exercise.  We can have a semblance of representative democracy through the periodic elections but not the substantive participatory democracy that people have aspired for long.


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

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