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Bolstering Democratic Legitimacy Local Institutions Are The Key
The attributes of democracy have become more or less the globally accepted political and social values. Democracy is said to be the least bad forms of government. It attempts to find a healthy balance between legitimacy and efficiency. No strong disagreement exists over the basic norms of democracy. Political scientists revel at the popularity of democracy and point out that never before in history have there been so many democracies and have never before so many supporters of democracy.
From Latin America to Asia and Africa, there is no country where democracy has not been accepted and institutionalised except the few like North Korea and so on. The former communist countries like Mongolia have become the champion of the democratic values and institutions while Cambodia, Vietnam have accepted both economic social, if not political pluralism. Cuba that was considered as the last bastion of communism in South America has transformed itself and restored diplomatic relations with the US-a beginning of a historic thaw ending the bitter hostility that was existing from the cold war era. The step towards convergence between the US and Cuba has been an epoch-making. It is rated as one of the important breakthroughs. Despite this universal acceptance and appreciation of democracy, it is still a contested concept. The basic values are accepted but not way it is being used and applied.
There are various interpretations and usages of democracy. They differ in context, application and also the emphasis. But irrespective of minor and subtle differences, democratic institutions like competitive multiparty elections, free press and so on have assumed paradigmatic character in the contemporary world. The democratic institutions have been created and developed in varying degrees in the countries of the West and the East. It is particularly after 1990 that the advent of democracy has become forceful and meaningful. The democratic institutions are constitutionally recognised and provisioned. The democratic institutions aim to meet such goals as to enable participation of the people through elections, to promote open and fair competition for power on the basis of popular vote, to ensure accountability of the governments.
More importantly these do provide a forum for rational discussion of political problems and settlement of conflicting social interests. The dominant view especially in the Western democratic countries holds that the institutions like rule of law, limited government, free and fair elections, equality before law and independent judiciary have been the building blocks of democracy. This view is forcefully argued and advanced by political scientists like Francis Fukuyama and Schumpeter, among others, in particular.
According to Schumpeter, democracy is not an end in itself. It is an institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote. According to this liberal democratic perspective, political contestation is the very crux and foundational norm of democracy. However, it is felt that the provision of democratic institutions is not sufficient and adequate. They provide the semblance of nominal democracy. In addition to it, democratic politics and active citizenship are very much crucial to build strong and sustainable edifice of democracy. The definition of democratic politics includes the capacity of the citizens to hold powerful private interests as well as agents of the state to account.
In addition to strengthening democratic institutions, equally strong emphasis should, therefore, be placed on the value of democratic politics. The most important issue has been strengthening the democratic institutions through the democratic engagement and participation of the citizens. However, democratic institutions and politics at high level of the state cannot alone meet the aspirations of the people. They should reach and entrench at the deep level of the society (at the rung) through the process of devolution of state power and empowerment of the citizens. The central (federal) government may be able to provide a positive lead but local communities and citizens need to be able to respond and make use of the newer opportunities on offer. Creation of strong local government institutions through devolutionary arrangements can redress the gaps and deficits of liberal democratic polity.
The local government institutions promote participation of the people in democratic process. They can, rejuvenate and enliven the democratic institutions at the local level. Strengthening participation in local governance means strengthening the direct involvement of citizens in decision making process.
Needless to repeat, in the contemporary democratic world, the local democratic institutions have assumed greater significance in the process of democratisation and empowerment of citizen. As a matter of fact in the classical (old) federal countries where local governance institutions had failed to receive constitutional backing, recognition and authority at the cost of local democracy, these institutions. However, today local government institutions have started to reclaim their important place. Local governance institutions are embodied as an equally important tier of the government through constitutional amendment or statutory provisions.
In the case of India it is argued that India needs Panchayats and town halls as much as it needs its state assemblies and Parliament house as the society and people move towards multi-level governance.
Similarly, in Nepal it has been felt that the country needs the strong institutions at the villages and municipalities to articulate the voices, needs and grievances of the citizens. The Constitution of Nepal has recognised the importance of local government institutions and sanctioned an important place to these institutions. As the delivery of services at the local level is beyond the reach of the ordinary people the strong local government institutions alone could reach the services out to the people. As the details are yet to be worked out, this should be done with due diligence and wariness. Moreover, care should also be taken to ensure that the new legislations do not distort and subvert the intents and purposes of the provisions enshrined in the new constitution.