Challenge Of Educating Voters
Dev Raj Dahal
Nepal is in the middle of a transformational moment. Its local election has showed massive upsurge of popular participation. Valid voting turnout scaled over 70 per cent while invalid votes registered 3.44 per cent. If the insight of past can be an indication of the future, the forthcoming federal and provincial elections will mark equal enthusiasm for electoral participation of Nepali citizens. Reduction of invalid votes lurks on the efficiency of voter’s education campaign, voters’ political consciousness and the overall security, electoral administration and political environment. Given the new type of election system, Nepali voters need to be familiarised with how to vote. Voters’ education can minimise invalid voting and maximise the valid turnout. But the valid voting alone is not a sign of civic competence of citizens unless Nepali voters know the reason: Why to vote? What difference can they make in conscious voting? How can they renegotiate their political relationship with candidates and political parties?
Knowledge about these can be gained through an enduring culture of civic education for each generation of people. Election is not just one event about the discourse on power. It is a fresh dialogue between the leaders and electorates for the renewal of social contract and a building peaceful future. Federal and provincial elections of Nepal have a series of pre-election, election and post-election implications for the society, economy and polity. In this sense, voters’ education and model voting conducted by Election Commission and its 20,000 trainers in the villages can be considered important initiative. But this is only a half-education about election for it does not teach about conscience voting which is crucial for democracy consolidation.
When politics in Nepal has moved from institutional aspect to behavioral one, what is needed for the nation’s political stability is civic education which teaches not only about election but also about the value of voting. It imparts knowledge about democratic principles, actors, rules, institutions and laws and transforms voters into attentive citizens. In a post-conflict country like Nepal stable peace and progress requires new scales of values beyond power calculating game of the “art of possible” the nation has experienced so far. In such a game, citizens do not care about the system and put a stake in it. Nepali citizens’ euphoria of all kinds of regime change in the past signifies three things: enlightenment deficits in them as political leaders did not make them the real stakeholders of democracy; lack of civic education provided them no rationale why should they defend democracy as a better political than other system of governance; and weak material performance of the regime offering winner-takes-all, no opportunity for ordinary citizens.
Catch-all tendency of leaders and parties made the voters highly unstable in their partisan attachment. As a result, citizens equated democracy with political parties and their leaders’ behavior, not as a system of responsive rule. Only the enlightened voters can be daring to make their leaders responsible for their promises and actions and help stabilise the feedback between society and the polity. Democracy needs diffusion of intelligence in the entire Nepali society as citizens are sovereign entities and their voice, vote and visibility matters for acquiring, using and transferring political power and creating legitimate authority. Enlightened citizens can prevent the manipulation of democracy’s weakness by powerful actors through the use of electoral weight, skill, money, nexus and networking.
In a media-saturated society like Nepal when election campaigns are dominated by clear advertisement of candidates, party manifestoes and political brands of the left and the right, election becomes a game of those “efficient” persons who do not reveal the true purpose of politics-to create common ground for a shared future and link public policy to uplift citizens’ life. One can already see self-amplifying speeches of candidates and their eager supporters in the social media. They also project negative image of rivals. The adversarial projection of politics is a threat to democratic dynamic in post-conflict Nepal. Democratic dynamic is an elan vital for it deems opponent as a creative agent of political change and election observer and civil society as an impartial conscience keeper.
Democracy requires civic culture which is possible through the cultivation of inner vigilance, agile minds and civic virtues. A higher civic sense and disposition, mission-driven politics, respect for the sanity of tradition and commitment to assume constitutional duties are preconditions to exercise one’s own rights and find the source of freedom. These are the jobs of civic education. Voters’ education project undertaken in Nepal by various organisations is inadequate. Democracy links politics to rule of law for better governance. But governance becomes difficult in a country like Nepal where real opponent is alienated providing space for extra-constitutional challenger to free-ride. It provides a recipe for politics of attrition, not democratic stability.
The totality of human life is not external dimension of acquiring efficiency to compete in a Darwinian style with others but also acquiring an ability to cooperate with rivals under the election code. Rivals in politics are not arch foes to be eliminated like in a war. They are national citizens with equal rights and dignity. Awareness of this civic virtue removes fundamentalism of class, caste, gender, ethnicity and territoriality and fosters humility, empathy and personal integrity which are so essential to foster conducive electoral environment. Vote-buying and selling are political crimes which represent the amorality of politics and hence become democracy subverting strategy. Similarly, use of muscular means, financial incentives, intimidation of voters against the election code destroys the constitutional illusion that Nepali citizens are sovereign. It upsets the enlightenment tradition of the nation rooted in Janata Janardan (people are like God) which until recently reconciled reason and faith in the legitimacy of statecraft.
In this sense, internalisation of election code of conduct by political parties, leaders, media, government and civil society is essential to cultivate the integrity of election so that it can create the robust legitimacy of leaders and institutions. When party manifestoes and leaders’ promises become over bloated, they challenge the connection of politics to public morality and thrive in rhetoric. Politics affects the course of the nation’s future. It is more than an entertaining drama.
The anomalies of Nepali politics can be partially ameliorated if the Election Commission undertakes enduring civic education programmes, political parties supply voters’ information, human rights NGOs inform the need to balance individual, group-based and universal human rights, legal organisations help to constitutionalise politics and civil society enthuse in voters the idea of civility, nationality and humanity. The real life experience of civic praxis is more important in shaping the nation’s political culture and reducing the gaps between knowledge and wisdom. In this sense, the experience Nepali citizens gain from federal and provincial elections will enhance their maturity.