Virtues Of Participatory Democracy

Dev Raj Dahal


Participatory democracy is rooted in the active engagement of citizens in the public interest associations to attain self-governing goal, improve the condition of life and resolve common problems in the framework of social justice. Its defining values are popular sovereignty, right-based culture, power devolution, justice, human rights and an admission of citizens to the realm of public life. These values create popular space for citizens to build choice, organisation, leadership, knowledge and solidarity beyond the classical frame of party politics. The right to participate is altering the nature of class-based party politics of industrial era socialised by mass media to multi-channel communication and representation of citizens’ diverse interests in political power to shape public agenda.
Citizens’ conscious participation, based on their own experience and capacity for self-reflection on their living condition, itself is the source of learning about freedom, legitimacy, authority, ownership and mitigation of the problem of collective choice. Participation in multi-functional spheres maximises their power, secures essential needs, rights and legitimate aspirations and enables them to control the effects of their action. The linking of economy to ecological and social policies helps to overcome the pitfalls of representative democracy where rule and domination become prerogative of majority party exercised from top down and less caring for common good of those at the bottom. It has fed grievance, political instability and conflict infecting good life.
Participatory democracy marks citizens’ voluntary and innovative zeal in politics and public affairs and its favorable outcome for a just political order. It has built their confidence in cutting the distance between constitutional vision and uneven conditions and preventing the return of demosclerosis. Joshua Cohen speaks to ensure “participation rights” in constitutional dispensation to “guarantee a fair value of these rights” and “produce legislation that encourages a fair distribution according to the difference principle.”
The crisis of representative democracy is caused by its inability to fit economy’s race to become global. There are other factors: the decay of industrial civilization with the onset of information revolution and its class based format of politics based on capital and labor, friend and foe and their free collective bargaining; surge of new issues such as climate change, interdependence, globalization, technological acceleration, migration etc entailing beyond state-centric basis of cooperation; birth of multi-classes of electorates with the participation of previously marginalized groups such as women, poor, labor and minorities struggling for recognition and renegotiation of a new social contract; decline of efficacy of ideological representation of social classes of multi-cultural society; rise of anti-party, anti-institutional social struggles and global associational revolution enabling Nepalis to reclaim decision making power to determine their destiny. It has offered opportunity for their participation in areas affecting their life, liberty and choice and halt a race to the bottom. The ideological crisis of representative democracy has created a transformative moment for participatory democracy driven by pluralistic politics, knowledge and information revolution. Integration of women, Dalits, Janajatis, Aadibasis, Madhesis, labor, minorities, human rights, ecologists and peace advocates in the representation of knowledge, policy, power and resource sharing has created a new constitutional basis for level playing field for organized groups. Nepali constitution ensures 33 percent representation of women in national and sub-national parliaments and 40 percent in local bodies.
Participatory democracy has enlarged the rights of citizens including self-determination in politics, ecology, culture, social and economic spheres seeking to prevent outside bullying and address the concerns of diverse society. It marked a qualitative shift of citizenship from “original position” of inequality to equal constitutional entitlements of inclusive citizenship and proportional representation. It is shifting the power of citizens previously governed by what John Rawls calls “the veil of ignorance” to entitlement-based enlightenment now. In Nepal, this is supported by inclusive procedures in civic, political and state institutions, change of electoral system, shared and self-rule with legislative, executive, judicial and financial power, social welfare, formation of inclusive commissions for many groups of citizens, etc despite their unequal virtues, intelligence and abilities.
Another shift lies in collective bargaining of interest between the capital and the labor to a spirit of cooperation of the government, private business and social enterprises of Nepali society to support public goals common in pluralistic politics though the distribution of its profits is skewed. Still, another shift is in the culture of bureaucracy from administration to communication, coordination and delivery of public goods and services to Nepalis to make multi-level governance functional. Participatory democracy says David Held “fosters human development, enhances a sense of political efficacy, reduces a sense of estrangement from power centers, nurtures a concern for collective problems and contributes to the formation of an active and knowledgeable citizenry capable of taking a more acute interest in governmental affairs.” Active citizens equipped with a sense of duties do not escape from social responsibilities but creatively participate in public affairs, the market, political parties, civil society, the state and global public sphere seeking fulfilling life. The praxis of participatory democracy evolves where citizens enrich their cognitive resources and experience, apply their practical knowledge and exercise their reason in problem solution through public action as per Local Government Operation Act.
Political emancipation of citizens generates civic competence and innovative social capital while human emancipation enables to acquire humanity based on the protection and promotion of human rights as an intrinsic value of participatory democracy. Information revolution has pluralised the governing powers, civic association and activism and entailed the involvement of affected citizens in decision making turning it transparent and accountable. An awareness about mutual vulnerability of singular institutional life is vital for the birth of solidarity of larger public to participate in collective action. The social struggles of non-class Guthis, journalists, human rights, conflict-victims, educational and health institutions, sub-national units, recently freed bonded labor and civil society demanding stakeholders’ consultation in law making beyond the partisan bias of parliament reflect the assertion of popular sovereignty assuming moral, democratic and cultural dimensions of politics and a revolt against Nepali legislature for alienating self from policy production, confinement to public resources through patronage networks and treating Nepalis as an object of development intervention.
The right to shape consultative outcome can flatten vertical integration of party structures giving cadres a sense of freedom, equality and autonomy. Nepali leaders can directly communicate and receive feedback from their voters now. Those not in the loops are facing social, gender and intergenerational tensions in the party committees. The ideological solidarity has shifted to value and issues-based networks and bottom up collective action. Democratization of the inner life of Nepali political parties can break the vices of clientalism, paternalism, factionalism and leadership cult bolstering the base of participatory democracy where experiences of citizens enables in transforming their condition.
Nepali citizens have cognitive ability and skill derived from contextual learning, will and opinion forming institutions about participation in political agitation, hunger strike, protests, demonstration, electoral campaigns, social movements and community engagements. They are vital to improve participatory quality and exert democratic control on decision expecting to spur higher scale of freedom, equity and justice. The political efficacy of Nepalis’ engagement in many self-chosen, self-managed and solidaristic organizations such as consumer committee, ward assembly, community governance, civil society, NGOs, cooperatives, school, community forestry, irrigation and local bodies’ federations etc is self-evident. They acquire experience and resources to influence policies. Local laws oblige citizens, elected leaders and government officials codetermine planning, manage resources, build infrastructures, execute and monitor various scales of projects. Local leaders and civil servants alone cannot self-determine vital matters without public hearing. Still, in a number of cases where civic competence of citizens is low cooptation of influential persons provide them a semblance of ownership in the initiatives and civic action. In other cases, citizens become mere implementers of decisions which mark the continuity of paternalistic, bureaucratic and hierarchic working style antithetical to participatory democracy.
Increased voters’ participation in Nepali elections to above 70 per cent is sufficient to legitimise the polity. Those not voting were either abroad, harbored political apathy or lacked civic virtues. Invalid voting turnout of about 3 percent can be attributed to a lack of voters’ education on the election system. It is doubtful whether the Nepali voters have full knowledge of the issues, leadership and organisations debated by the media or attend local meetings with leaders vital foWr evolving participant culture. Their final decision to cast ballot is determined more by social characteristics and leader affiliation than rational calculation to hone the virtues of institutional life of democracy. Rational participation requires a strong doze of civic enlightenment in Nepal. It helps to address the rationality of governance performance and nurture the virtues of participatory democracy.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues)

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