Civic Participation Cures Democratic Deficit

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When the provisions for the federal constitution of Nepal had been debated in the Constituent Assembly during the previous decades, lawmakers were basically seemed predisposed to the issues regarding the reorganisation of the state. The most controversial issue that dominated the discussion had appertained to defining institutional and structural modality of the provinces – intermediate tier of the federal government. There may be different determinants for reorganisation of the provinces. The most important of them are ethno-cultural or territorial and administrative considerations that define the options in the making of provinces or regions that constitute intermediate layer of the government in a federation.  

In the process of constitution writing, enactment and promulgation, these controversial issues contributed to cause delay in the delivery of the constitution. Finally, the hybrid type modality was followed giving due consideration to ethno-cultural and administrative - territorial dimension in making of federation. However, except for the Madhesh Province, administrative -territorial perspective took precedence in the delineation of other six provinces. The neglected part in design of the federal constitution of Nepal has been seen in the absence   the adequate provision regarding democratic spaces which could foster and enhance    citizen participation and engagement in the governing institutions of the state. 

Review of statute’s provisions

A review of the constitutional provisions and their implementation for the last seven years indicate that aspects regarding participatory democracy have not received due recognition. The constitution is guided more by the notion of representative democracy where voters elect their deputies and mandate them to rule on their behalf. Though the preamble to the constitution talks abundantly about civic participation in democratic governance, the core provisions of the constitution place more focus on electoral participation that ultimately vests power of the government in the deputies chosen by their constituents.  When the US constitution was drafted almost three hundred years ago, in those days too framers of the constitution seemed quite aware of the significance of participatory democracy and civic engagement in the governance of the federation.

Some of the US states have enshrined mechanism for participatory democracy in their basic law. They even entitle the citizens to recall their representatives elected for different levels of the government.  Such democratically meaningful provisions in the state constitutions were envisaged due to the emphasis given by the founding fathers of the constitution. They had argued for participatory type democracy contending that the representative federal government would alone not be able to meet the needs of the citizens. Thomas Jefferson, one of the influential founding fathers of the US constitution, had advocated explicitly in favour of the participatory model of democracy. A participatory type democracy empowers citizens to influence and shape the process of policy decisions.  It emphasises on   broader engagement of people in political decision making and politicians are therefore responsible for implementing those policy outcomes consistent to the aspirations of the people.

In today’s world, participatory democracy needs to be promoted and institutionalised to address the issues relating to what is widely known as democratic deficits. It should be ensured that citizens have multiple access points to influence process of policy making. Democratic countries both in developing and developed world have long been said to suffer from democratic deficit and crisis of governance. The issues relating to democratic deficit have been widely discussed in the European Union as well. Discussions of the EU’s democratic deficit in EU countries have abounded at least since the time of the Maastricht Treaty when the European integration project formally moved beyond economic integration to embrace an explicit political vision characterised by principle of subsidiarity.

More recently a different kind of democratic ill has been afflicting the democracies, particularly due to the spread of the kind of political illiberalism. This has been said largely due to the failings of the democracies for their failure to connect with or adequately represent the aspirations of the citizens. The rise of political illiberalism or the right wing populism in many countries of the European Union has been attributed largely to the malaise of democratic deficit. When we talk of the devices or tools of participatory democracy, mandatory consultation and discussion with citizens time and again on issues affecting their day to day concerns is very important.

Referendums

Dialogues and interface meetings are a way for local and national politicians to meet with constituents to hear their opinions on topics they are interested in. Similarly, initiatives and referendums are two ways in which local and state governments allow citizens to influence policy decisions. An initiative is a process that allows citizens to bypass their state legislature by placing proposed laws on the ballot. Some states in the US and Cantons in Switzerland   even allow citizens to place constitutional amendments on the ballot. A popular referendum, on the other hand, allows voters to approve or repeal an act of the state legislature. Similar to initiatives, voters sign a petition to get the measure on the next ballot, but popular referendums differ in that the law in question has already passed in the state legislature

Both initiatives and referendums show how local and state governments allow for the broad participation of voters to influence policymaking. Successful policies require meaningful participation and proper consultation with the people. Indeed, a lack of consultation and participation has been a major grievance among the people in Nepal. Even as the issues may be sensitive but if these are discussed with citizen stakeholders from the outset, this may not only ease tensions but also legitimise the authority of the state. The issue of citizen-state trust could be largely addressed. 

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

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