Federal Republican Democracy: Some Reflections


A republican democracy is considered the most advanced system of governance that exists in the world today. This is so because there are no other political systems with a broader ownership base, more representative and capable of offering wider latitude of freedom for the people. In its simplest definition, republican democracy is a system that does not draw its legitimacy from heredity and people exercise their authority through their elected representatives. According to Robert Dahl, a prominent political scientist, democracy is a system where decisions are made by “interacting and contesting groups’ rather than by one single entity. Democracy is based on popular endorsement and has enough checks and balances in the form of separation of power to prevent leadership from being arbitrary and tyrannical. Another important feature of this system is its inclusive character, which enables it to accommodate different identity groups and minority nationalities.

The history of republican democracy dates back to ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. The idea of republican democracy is said to have its genesis in Athens, where people participated directly in the decision-making process of the government through assemblies and councils. The Romans also contributed to the evolution of the republican system of government by creating institutions like the Senate and other platforms that facilitated public discourse and participatory decision-making. But it was not until the Enlightenment period, covering the 17th and 18th centuries, that the modern concept of republican democracy took shape.

John Lock, Montesquieu, and Rousseau are considered great ideologues whose thoughts played a pivotal role in shaping democratic and republican systems in different countries. John Lock said that political authority derives authority from the people and that a government can rule the people only with their consent. Montesquieu brought forward the theory of separation of power, which ruled out that no single individual or entity could monopolise power. Rousseau propounded the theory of the social contract and the general will of the people. Similarly, the French Revolution of 1789 popularised the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, which continue to resonate with the people fighting for social transformation even today. The American Revolution translated into practice the theory of federal repu blican democracy as a popular form of governance.

Most countries of the world have traversed a tortuous path to achieve democracy, freedom, and individual liberty for their people. Nepalese people have also put up a strenuous struggle against the tyrannical regimes of the Shah and the Rana dynasties, lasting for 240 years. Finally, Nepali people were able to overthrow the tyrannical regimes with relentless struggle and an institutionalised republican system through a majority decision of the first Constituent Assembly in 2008. The Constitution of Nepal 2015 endorsed the decision of the first Constituent Assembly and paved the way for its implementation in Nepal, giving a constitutional seal to the popular aspiration as expressed in the great people’s movements lasting for over six decades. The preamble of the Constitution of Nepal 2015 documented that Nepal was committed to marching towards socialism in addition to guaranteeing good governance, civil liberty, human rights, adult franchise, periodic elections, freedom of the press, an impartial judiciary, and the rule of law, which reflect all the salient features of a republican democracy.

It is now nine years since the promulgation of the Constitution of Nepal 2015. During these years, democracy has taken root and is consolidating itself through inculcation of ethical behaviour in society and strengthening democratic institutions. Three tiers of representative bodies have been created to dispense day-to-day service to the people, exercise delegated power, and facilitate the equal and proportionate development of all the regions of the country. Seven provincial authorities and 753 local bodies have been created, including 6 metropolitan cities, 11 sub-metropolitan cities, 276 municipalities, and 460 rural municipalities. These institutions, all run by elected representatives, provide a strong framework for fostering dialogue and reaching consensus at the grassroots on contentious issues. The federal model of democracy has provided a wider space for participation for diverse identity groups, including women, ethnicities, indigenous people, and sexual minorities. It has provided a credible framework for the decentralisation of authority and resources. The people of remote places are getting essential services from local bodies with fewer hassles for them. The development budgets are being disbursed more responsibly and with the oversight of the voters. These are the bright aspects of democratic transformation.

Democracy is a popular system and thrives with the continuous support of the people. But there are precedence in history when democratic achievements have been overturned with the restoration of authoritarianism. Aristotle has said that'republics can decline into democracies, and democracies degenerate into despotism’ if the people are not vigilant. In France, Napoleon Bonaparte, who was once pampered as the son of the revolution, restored monarchy and himself became emperor. His famous statement, ‘I found the crown lying in the gutter and picked it up with my sword’, is a warning for the leaders of young democracies who enrich themselves by misusing authority while people sink into the abyss of poverty.

It is indisputable that the experiment with federal democracy has brought significant transformation to the socio-economic reality in our country, but the path to transition is still not free from challenges. The inter and intra-party conflicts have lingered as negative by-products of the democratic system, impeding the development process and making it difficult to forge consensus on policy issues and development priorities. The persistence of corruption, the lack of accountability, and the farcical dramas of forming and dismantling coalitions, all aimed at capturing power, have perpetuated instability, disenchanting the people with democracy. The Constitution of Nepal 2015 has introduced many proactive measures, including reservation, to address the problems and grievances of minority people. However, the undercurrents of identity-based grudges from minority ethnicities, indigenous communities, religious minorities, and Dalits are still threatening to explode, underscoring the need for widening the scope of inclusion.

Further, the division of the country along the federal structure has given rise to a fragmented mentality among the elected representatives, diverse interest groups, and communities. The paucity of resources and limitations of physical infrastructure have hindered the momentum of economic progress and widened social disparity.

To sum up, the successful implementation of federal republicanism still possesses considerable challenges and requires a high degree of caution, more concerted efforts, and affirmative actions designed to address the concerns of the excluded communities, end economic disparity, eliminate corruption, and ensure access to resources. But it is possible only by fostering an advanced collaborative consciousness and democratic culture that inspires political parties and leaders to rise above greed and partisan interests, holding the dignity and integrity of the nation above everything else.

(Dr. Bharadwaj is former ambassador and former chairperson of Gorkhapatra Corporation.bharadwajnarad@gmail.com.)

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