Local Democratic Institutions Key To Political Democratisation : Mukti Rijal

Democracy is now more or less a universally accepted political and social value and concept. No strong disagreement exists over the basic norms of democracy. From Latin America to Asia and Africa, there is no country where democracy has not been accepted or appreciated, even institutionalised, except in a few countries like North Korea.

Former communist countries like Mongolia have become the champion of democratic values and institutions while Cambodia and Vietnam have accepted both economic and social, if not political, pluralism. Cuba has transformed itself and restored diplomatic relations with the US, beginning an historic thaw, ending the bitter hostility that had survived from the Cold War era. The step towards convergence between the US and Cuba has been an epoch-making event.

Contested concept

Despite this universal acceptance and appreciation of democracy, it is still a contested concept. The basic values are accepted, but not the way they are being used and applied. There are various interpretations and usages of democracy. They differ in context,  application and also emphasis. But, irrespective of the minor and subtle differences, democratic institutions like competitive multiparty elections, free press and so on have assumed a 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.

Particularly after 1990, democracy has become forceful and meaningful in Nepal. The democratic institutions are constitutionally recognised and provisioned. The democratic institutions aim to meet such goals as to enable the participation of the people through elections to promote open and fair competition for power on the basis of popular vote, to ensure accountability of governments and to provide a forum for rational discussion of the political problems and settlement of conflicting social interests.

he dominant view, especially in the Western democratic countries, holds that institutions like the rule of law, limited government, free and fair elections, equality before the law and n independent judiciary are the building blocks of democracy. This view is forcefully argued and advanced by political scientists like Francis Fukuyama and Schumpeter, among others.

According to Schumpeter, a noted political thinker on democratic institutions, 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 now widely accepted 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 crucial to building a 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 the democratic institutions, an equally strong emphasis should, therefore, be placed on  the value of democratic politics because the most important issue is enlivening and strengthening the democratic institutions through democratic engagement and participation of the citizens.

Moreover, democratic institutions and politics at the high level of the state alone cannot meet the aspirations of the people. They should reach and entrench themselves 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. 

The creation of strong local government institutions through devolutionary arrangements can redress the gaps and deficits of a liberal democratic polity by promoting the participation of the people in the democratic process, rejuvenating and enlivening the democratic institutions at the local level. Strengthening participation in local governance means strengthening direct citizen involvement in decision-making.

Local democratic institutions

Needless to repeat, in the contemporary democratic world, the local democratic institutions have assumed greater significance in the process of democratisation and empowerment of 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. And 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 the context of Nepal, it has been felt that the country needs strong institutions at the village and municipality level to articulate the voices, needs and grievances of the citizens. As the delivery of services at the local level is beyond the reach of the ordinary people, only strong local government institutions alone could provide the services to the people .

The new constitution of Nepal has given an important place to local governments, but details are yet to be worked out, which should be done through parliamentary statutes and laws. In this context, care should be taken to ensure that the new legislation does not distort the intents and purposes of the provisions enshrined in the new constitution.

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