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Seminar Report on Initiative for Democracy Building: Education about Voters and Civic Rights

Organised by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES)

Report of the Seminar held in Gorkha (24-25 June); Hetauda (26-27 June) and Chitwan (28-29 June)

Prepared By
Chandra D. Bhatta
Research Fellow on Social Development at Washu, St. Louis and PhD Scholar at LSE


Introduction to the program

Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) - a German think tank in Nepal is organising series of training seminars in the country on 'Democracy Building: Education about Voters and Civic Rights'. As a part of this initiative FES has recently conducted such seminars in Gorkha, Hetauda and Chitwan. The voter's education programme was supported by the German Foreign Ministry and FES is playing a lead role to implement them in Nepal. FES has been further supported by Nepal Foundation for Advanaced Studies (NEFAS) - a Kathmandu based NGO in national affairs to organize the meeting.

In all three districts the programme was attended by, among others, political leaders of all political parties (including Maoist), academicians, teachers, NGO personnel, civil society activists, student leaders, youths, representative of trade unions and other stakeholders of society. In Gorkha 118 participants attended the programme out of which 25 were women. District election officer, Head of the District Police - Gita Upreti and the Chief District Officer of Gorkha actively participated in the programme. Likewise, Hetauda saw 115 participants out of which 22 were women. High ranking police officials, Election Officer of Hetauda, Chief Judge and other judges of the Hetauda Appellate court were also present in the seminar. In Chitwan - the programme was attended by 118 participants out of which 15 were women participants including two judges from the Bharatpur District Court, one parliamentarian and high ranking police officials of the district. By and large, the programe was well received and was able to fulfill its objectives.

Proceedings

Dev Raj Dahal - Head of the FES in Nepal presented his paper and spoke about state, society and polity within the context of current political transition in Nepal, such as peace accord, Maoist's entry into governance and elections for CA and the question of legitimacy. Likewise, Kashi Raj Dahal - spoke about modus operandi and other technical aspects attached with CA election, election system, social inclusion, voters information, democratic political culture, etc. Chandra Dev Bhatta introduced Handouts on Democracy and initiated debates. The major emphasis of the programme was how best to bring more and more people in the Constituent Assembly elections scheduled for November 22, establish the conditions of security, law and order and the integrity of the whole election system. Participants, however, argued that the notion of social justice in Nepali politics and democratization should move together. In addition to usual discussion on different and diverge political issues that faces Nepal, greater deal of emphasis was laid down on the anatomy of CA, civic education, election procedure and civic rights and the roles and responsibilities of various stakeholders of society to make CA elections successful. It has been acknowledged that the only way to change the society peacefully is through civic education and praxis.

Civic Education and Politics: An Analysis

The civic competence of citizens sets out what are the rights of citizens, what they may do and what they may not do as well as to move into the sphere of imagination, self-experience, reflection and will to sovereignty. It is here citizens develop a sense of trust in political authority and facilitate their engagement in politics. The basic objective of civic education is to bring activities of major actors of society closer to the people. But the biggest challenge in Nepal is how best to instill the sense of civic knowledge upon citizens in order to engage them on important public issues and address the fundamental problems in Nepali political practice such as corruption, cronyism and opaque politics.

Nepalis must establish the habit of active citizenship through educative means, that is, being players, not spectators, and assume personal commitment and responsibility for what is going on in their communities, localities and the nation-state. Unfortunately, there is woeful absence of civic education by schools, by the press and perhaps by parent which speaks a lot about 'non-active citizenship' behavior of citizens. In this sense, adequate civic competence-political education, civic skills and civic disposition-- is essential because it helps to revolt against the normalizing function of conventional politics.

Whilst in the filed, the civic paucity was realised during the interaction programme in all three places. Majority of the participants, however, were curious to know as how we can straighten Nepali politics, how best we can mobilise our youngsters particularly within the context of upcoming CA election which will set the future political course of this country. Participants (including political activist) have agreed that there is a great deal of civic deficit at different layers of political leadership due to which Nepal is witnessing one after another political crisis, governmental instability and policy discontinuity in the country.

While Nepal is going through various highs and lows- be it political, economic or social sector. Every comfort, discomfort, approval, disapproval or breach of law either by governmental, non-governmental and private action is followed abruptly by severe street protests. In fact protests have become synonyms of Nepali society. The protests exhibited by political parties, trade unions, civic associations; other professional associations, liquid mass and non-state actors in fact shows major concern of nation dwellers about the state affairs. It clearly reflects that there is a degree of consciousness at the public level as what is going on in society. The civic euphoria that came through street protests and led to the fall of royal regime has elevated the role of protests in public realm. The civil society and political society led movement indeed has played a great deal of role in changing political landscape of the country peacefully and the process of social and economic transformation is too slow.

There are many occasions in addition to the protest for the cause of democracy per se such as price hike of basic commodities like petroleum products, electricity tariff, consumable commodities etc in which youths have been showing their disapproval by actively participating in the protest rallies demonstrations etc. It is very much good to show the concern about the day to day affairs otherwise state will become anarchic. However all the movements are not civic and there is no guarantee that every civic movement will lead a better result in a society or produce good system of governance. But the normal feeling is that any thing that is not accepted to individual or groups needs to be resorted by protests and majority of them go wayward. But no institute or individuals have ever tried to give even a second thought on the repercussions protests have on public life and the political culture. It is often observed that these protest rallies are not always satisfactory or for that matter not in the overall interest and welfare of our society. The frequent and unabated protests for every reason weaken the institutional life of the state and are dangerous for democracy.

The concept civic participation, to some extent, has been either misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted in Nepali society by its stake holders and all types of civic participation whether they are desirable or not have been praised with big fanfare irrespective of their nature, results and modus operandi. And the clear message never trickles down to actual activists who come out in the street. Hence there is a great deal of gap between the rationality behind the protests and the real participants. As a result protests out to be 'uncivil' and cause a great deal of concern at the societal level. They also make public life troublesome. These practices (stone pelting) do not promote culture of peace in a society and needs to be discouraged by introducing some sort of civic component(s) in the curriculum.

CA election and Civic Education

Politics in Nepal is still based on individual personality than public institutions; the leadership roles within the government and parties are highly personalised and lack accountability. Such functional and behavioural crises severely hinder the process of institutionalisation and legitimating the political system and its constituent units.

In Nepal so far the state supports political parties in giving space in through television and radio, provides information on different aspects of election and some knowledge and information about the technique on different aspects of election and some knowledge and information about the technique of voting. But neither does it put national issues on serious debate in an analytical context to excite thinking on alternative world-view to democratic participation nor it provides necessary relationship between changed election and democracy. Voting is not only about electing candidates it involves pre-election environment, actual voting and the acceptance of its outcome to the public. Voting thus links democratic principles into practice and the voters become legislators in their own way. The Interim Constitution has expanded different sets of citizenship and enlarged its domain from the political to social, cultural, economic and ecological sphere. For the citizens election is, therefore, an educative process because they exercise their constitutional rights and duties and consolidate the social base of politics. It provides a socialisation process on the political culture of the nation. Seminars were able to disseminate all these important information to the participants.

Conclusion

What can be drawn from the seminar in three different places is that due to wide prevalence of columnised social organisations (NGOs, CBOs) the political unification has not taken place in the country. To rebuild a sense of civic pride and responsibility out of the chaos of lawlessness and renegotiate with political culture, perhaps acculturation of youths with civic education is necessary which help us to build up the notion of active citizenship and deepens democratisation process. This will help us to carry nationalism and democracy together.

The current political document (interim constitution) and political settlement are only the product of doctrine of necessity and political issues (state restructuring and the model of governance - republicanism etc) and terminologies (loktantra vs. ganatantra etc) still dominate day-to-day political discourse in the country. But what has also been observed from the interaction with the participants is that critical mass is forming in every domain and they want to have equal share in every aspect of governance. Currently political reality and political rhetoric is conflicting with each other. The rhetoric of NEW NEPAL is the product of this political rhetoric.

Development of democratic political culture across the political parties is necessary for the prosperous political future. Nepali state should try to integrate all the forces in the national mainstream, any political changes that take place in the political spectrum have to be realized and should trickle down to the grass root level only then we can have a sustainable peace in the country. The challenges that lie ahead Nepali state are many and perhaps these can be met when we introduce more civic education and prepare youngsters to face the challenges generated by the forces of modernity. On the occasions FES also distributed Handouts on Democracy and CA and also a book on Democracy to all the participants.

 
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