Active Citizens For Local Govt 

 

Mukti Rijal

The local elections being held pursuant to the new constitutional arrangement in Nepal has generated discussion and sense of enthusiasm among the civil society leaders, political commentators and analysts and political stakeholders about local democracy and its meaning to the life of the Nepalese people.

Many civil society leaders are quite optimistic of the changes and transformation that will follow after the elected representatives take reins of the local government and start to exercise their authority and competencies guaranteed by the new federal constitution of Nepal.

Powerful value

Democracy is such a powerful and sovereign political value that not only instills hope, aspirations but also imparts optimism, freedom and urge to assert one’s own civic power and potency. It is, therefore,  democracy has acquired the global acceptance and legitimacy. From Latin America to Asia and Africa there are no countries where democracy has not been accepted or appreciated. 

 The basic values of democracy are accepted, but there are no similarities and uniformities in the way it is being used and applied. There are various interpretations and usages of democracy. They differ in context, application and the emphasis.   But irrespective of minor and subtle differences, democratic institutions like competitive multiparty elections, free press and local democracy and so on have assumed paradigmatic character in the contemporary world. 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 massively forceful and strong. All democratic institutions are constitutionally recognised and provisioned. These 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 and to provide a forum for rational discussion of political problems and settlement of conflicting social interests.

A 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 so on are the building blocks of democracy. This view is forcefully argued and advanced by political scientists in the US and UK and other countries of the world.

In fact, it should be understood that democratic institutions are not an end in themselves. They are the institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire power to decide by means of a competitive and fair contest for the people’s vote and opinion. According to this liberal democratic perspective, political contestation is the very crux and foundational norm of democracy.

However, it is now widely accepted a fact that the provision of democratic institutions is not sufficient and adequate to make democracy effectively functional. They provide the semblance of nominal or procedural democracy.  Vibrant democratic politics and active citizenship should complement to democratic institutions to make the latter function effectively. These are very much crucial to build strong and sustainable edifice of democracy

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 democratic institutions, equally strong emphasis should, therefore, be placed on the value of democratic politics. The most important issue in a democracy is revitalising and strengthening the democratic institutions through the democratic engagement and participation of the citizens.

Moreover, 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 new opportunities on offer.  

Creation of strong local government institutions through devolutionary arrangements can redress the gaps and deficits of liberal democratic polity by promoting participation of the people in democratic process, rejuvenating and activating democratic institutions at the local level. Strengthening participation in local governance means enhancing direct involvement of citizens in decision making.

Needless to repeat, in the contemporary democratic world, the local democratic institutions have assumed greater significance in the process of democratisation and empowerment of the citizens.  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 have started to reclaim their important place. As a result, local governance institutions are embodied as the equally important tier of the government though 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 multilevel governance. Similarly, in Nepal recognising to the need for the strong democratic institutions at the villages and municipalities to deliver to the aspirations of the people, the constitution embodies the local level governments as third tier of the state authority.

Local election

The impending local election is meant to give essence and meaning to these institutions. As the delivery of services at the local level is poor and inadequate, the elected local government institutions are expected to reach the services out to the people.  However, democratic politics should receive equal  attention in making them functional. Local government institutions in themselves cannot be effectively functional to deliver in consonance with popular aspirations unless people are active enough to engage with the local institutions and audit and monitor their activities. In Nepal, we have landed in the context where we have democratic institutions safeguarded by the constitution, but we need active and articulate citizens that can hold the local governments to account for their performance.  

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