Civic Competence Fortifies Democracy


Multiparty democracy had been once a very much contested notion in Nepal. It was argued that Nepal is not yet ready to come to terms with competitive multiparty democracy. This, according the multiparty skeptics, had been due to the fact that the country lacks minimum social and economic conditions and civic infrastructures that are required to adapt and imbibe into the growth and development of liberal democracy in the country. It divides the society into political blocs and creates disharmony and discord in the otherwise long cherished and maintained social cohesion and community relationships. Party leaders tend to nurse their parochial interests obscuring the overall national outlook. 

In fact, the multiparty democracy was tried out and experimented during late fifties but it was dismissed by the late King Mahendra contending that plural partisan politics is not suited to the genus and social ambience of Nepal. The monarchy-led polity was introduced in the country. The school and college curricula had assigned separate contents to account for the shortcomings and pitfalls of the multiparty politics.

The political structures were so created and bolted that the political groups biased in favour of multiparty democracy and political pluralism were precluded and deliberately barred from influencing the course of monarchy led politics in the country. However, the narrative of the non-party authoritarian polity opposed to liberal multiparty democracy failed to resolve its inherent deficits and halt the dynamics of democratic aspirations of the people. 

Wave of liberal democracy

The onslaught of the wave of liberal democracy was so strong that it caved in and gave way to the restoration of multiparty politics in the country in 1990. Even during the post-democracy era, political analysts held the views that the anomalies and deficits seen in the functioning of multiparty democracy in Nepal stem from the gaps subsisting between the values and ethos of multiparty democracy and existing social economic structures and patrimonial party leadership in the country. However, such views did not in any way hint at to roll back the multiparty democratic institutions and revive the party less authoritarian politics in the country. 

Today political forces like Rastriya Prajatantra Party that campaign in favour of restoring monarchy are aware that there is no substitution to liberal democracy and their scheme of monarchy restoration is just to revive the entity as the ceremonial cultural -- national institution like in the Scandinavian nations. The communists in Nepal whether they are the CPN-UML or CPN-Maoist Centre, they find no reason to overrule liberal democracy and plead for power monopolistic type politics in the country. Even with several deficits and shortcomings, liberal democracy is superior form of government.  Democracy subordinates states to people as they own their government, not vice versa. Democracy implies freedom of speech, association, assembly - essentially the freedom for individuals to express who they are and what they believe.

Way back in 1947, the then British prime minister Winston Churchill is recorded to have  remarked that many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world. No one pretends that democracy is perfect. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. As observed by Churchill, democracy is a difficult and necessarily an arduous process. It is about citizens and states organising through proper institutional values and core in a common effort for social progress and justice. However, instituting democratic system properly is not easy; nor has it been perfected. But it is in this very difficult and imperfection that the strengths of democracy are present. 

A Canadian minister and parliamentarian remarks: “If there is one overriding truth about democracy, it is precious but vulnerable. Over the course of my years as a parliamentarian, I have witnessed many threats to democracy. While many are obvious, the most dangerous are subtle. It is not empty stomachs, impunity or corruption alone that necessarily jeopardise democracy; it is their accumulated effects. The greatest threat to democracy does not always come from the barrel of a gun, but from the collected effects of poverty, apathy, and economic insecurity”.

The obstacle to democracy is that the value of its name often exceeds the principles of its practice. The very fine book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblat How Democracies Die, echoes this spirit and speaks of democracies being in trouble when the leaders do not defend the key institutions of constitutional government, election protections, procedures for picking winners, civil liberties, and free speech. These are not properly protected and fostered by leaders who vouchsafe for them.  

Significant shift

In fact, democracy can only be as good as people choose to make it. Referring to the need for civic vigilance and responsibility, late President Václav Havel of the Czech Republic wrote: "A genuinely fundamental and hopeful improvement in political and economic systems cannot happen without a significant shift in human consciousness, and that it cannot be accomplished through a simple organisational trick.

Citizens must discover again, within themselves, a deeper sense of responsibility toward the nation, which means responsibility toward something higher than themselves. Both citizens and leaders must place the democratic process above themselves”.

This indicates that voters must be responsible to make enlightened choices. In the end, anything less presents a major threat to democracy. For this reason, it is obvious that the persistent problem is lack of civic competence which is a perpetual threat to democracy.

How can one vote and elect the good democratic leaders when one has no democratic competence and awareness to choose right from the wrong. If democracy is to flourish and take shape, both voters and leaders should be enlightened enough and responsible to ensure that democratic institutions are enabled to respond to the needs and aspirations of the citizens.

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

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