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

Organised by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES)

Dadeldhura (22-23 July), Mahendranagar (24-25 July), Surkhet (27-28 July) Nepalgunj (29-30 July)

By Chandra D Bhatta
PhD Scholar and Research Fellow on Social Development
Email: cdbhatta@yahoo.com


Introduction to the programme

Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) - a German Political Foundation is organising series of training-cum- seminars in Nepal on 'Democracy Building: Education about Voters and Civic Rights' in the light of changed political environment. The main objective of the programme is to educate Nepali citizens on civic and voters rights to enable them to participate in the political process, particularly, on the upcoming Constituent Assembly election significantly. As a part of this initiative, FES went to the Far-Western (Dadeldhura and Kanchanpur districts) and Mid-Western (Surkhet and Nepalgunj) Development Regions and conducted seminars. The voter's education programme was supported by the German Foreign Ministry.

In all four districts the programme was attended by, among others, political leaders of all political parties (including Maoist), judges, academicians, teachers, NGO personnel, members of civil society, student leaders, youths, representative of trade unions and other stakeholders of society. In Dadeldhura 120, Kanchanpur 117, Surkhet 137 and in Nepalgunj 75 participants attended the programme. In Dadeldhura, the Chief District Officer, District Judge, District Election Officer, Officiating Chief of the District Police Office have actively participated in the programme. Likewise, in Kanchanpur Mr. Ram Prasad Adhikari - Judge of the Appellate Court, District Election Officer and other government officials attended the programme. In Surkhet - police officials, District Election Officer attended the seminar and in Nepalgunj - Chief Judge and other judges of Nepalgunj appellate court and District Education Officer participated in the programme, among others.

The obstacles

The Far and Mid-western part of Nepal received torrential rain during the second-half of July and this heavy downpouring created tremendous problems. Landslides and floods have severely affected public life in this part of Nepal. The FES troupe also had to face obstacles caused by landslide and floods. For example, on the way to Dadeldhura on 21st of July we had to wait nearly for two hours in the Jungle of Bardia (Bardiya National Sanctuary) as it was virtually impossible to cross the rivulet due to rising water level. Similarly on the way to Kanchanpur from Dadeldhura (on 23rd of July) the team was forced to wait for three hours due to road block caused by the heavy boulder which feel on the road from the torrential rain.

Likewise on the way to Surkhet (on 26th of July) the team was stranded for nearly 24 hours in the jungle as the road leading to Surkhet was blocked by uncountable numbers of landslides on the Ratnahighway that connects Surkhet with main highway. The whole group stayed at a tiny place called Babai - which only had few tea stalls on the roadside with no lodging facility as such. At one point, we thought that we would miss the programme in Surkhet which was planned on the following day. We also could not communicate with local facilitator as the whole of the communication system in Surkhet was down. But we luckily managed to find a bulldozer and took it along with us (as we travel) to clear the road, the Nepal Army cleared the landslides, . Finally, we managed to reach Surkhet at around 8:30 a.m. on the very day of the seminar (which was scheduled at 9 a.m.).

The fourth seminar of this trip was in Nepalgunj - a city which was submerged in the water due to incessant rain. In Nepalgunj we had to shift the meeting venue in a Restaurant as the Seminar Hall that we had rented was completely under water. We also had to look for another hotel for lodging. We were also worried about the participants as most of the surrounding areas of Nepalgunj were under water but despite these, good number of participants showed up and seminar was organised in time and went well. By and large, this turned out to be most problematique trip but looking at the enthusiasm of the participants towards the programme, the team can certainly make a claim that programme succeeded to complete its set goals/objectives.

The Proceedings

In Dadeldhura and Kanchanpur participants (Maoists as well as others) have raised questions, among others, about "ism (ideology) and political philosophy", religion, Marxism and class struggle, crisis in capitalism and socialism, crisis in imperialism (American) and Communism, global (American) imperialism, civil society, globalisation and ways to defend nation-states, particularly small states like Nepal from the negative phenomenon of globalisation. Participants also expressed their concerned as how can we craft a vibrant foreign policy so that state can defend national interests (political, economic) without much of international interference. Some of the participants also expressed great deal of concern whether election to the CA will be held at all given the mounting international pressure on the internal affairs of Nepali state particularly on its future polity (political course). These questions, perhaps, are much relevant to balance global order, however, participants argued that since Nepali internal politics is influenced by those factors who promote global imbalances and being part of the global order (socio/political/economic) we can only straighten internal problems when we collectively work at national level. Similarly participants were also concerned about the state of internal politics particularly eroding capacity of the state to maintain internal sovereignty due to deteriorating security situations and challenges posed by the rising numbers of various non-state-actors in different parts of the country, particularly in Terai.

Moreover, on the content of democracy participants were curious to know the exact meaning of the political terminologies such as loktantra, samabesi loktantra, and state restructuring being thrown out, by intellectuals as well as professional politicians, in the market. Participants also said that public aspirations which are built on the success of people's movement of 2006 are slowly fading away. This is primarily due to huge gap between political promises and ensuing reality, state's inability to deliver and fulfill public expectations and manage internal political order by embracing all societal forces into the national mainstream.

In Dadeldhura, commenting on the internal political disorder and deteriorating security situation, Chief District Officer said that during transitional phase erosion in the capacity of state and rise of non-state-actors with varied demand is obvious due to occult reasons based on the high hope pinned on people's movement. This phenomenon can be noticed in other societies, not only in Nepal, who are passing through transitional stage like ours. But the real challenge is to mange 'transitional' phase by upholding public expectations as well as by stabilisng democratisation process. State can, to some extent, get rid of this paranoia if it receives cooperation from all strata of society and if all political actors come up with 'common consensus' on basic political needs of the state and integrate all conflicting actors (including potential and left-out) in the political process. That said the great deal of responsibility falls on the hands of those political actors who aspire for the change. In Nepali context it's the responsibility of eight political parties to integrate other political as well as societal actors (left out and potential) into the decision making process so that another dissident group does not evolve.

Moreover, participants also asked explanations of some of the widely used political terminologies in Dadeldhura and Surkhet. For example they wanted to know difference between 'revolution and movements, conflict management and conflict transformations' and how they are relate to Nepali context. On the utopian vision of new Nepal - participants wanted to know how we can develop Nepal at par with other nation-states of the world. There was a great deal of concern as what type of policies (economic, education) should Nepal need to craft so as to reduce rising unemployment in the country which is contributing towards mass alienation of youths from the institutional life of the state and degenerating confidence building measures in society.

Participants also enquired ways to reduce the undercurrent of class and societal struggle particularly in the light of new types of conflicts which are more society centric than state centric. Overall how we can develop democratic political culture in the country primarily at the paraphernalia of ruling class who still do not command public trust. They feared that unless civic political culture is not introduced across political parties and their leaders there is no way that we can expect much from the recent political development(s).

Another important question that was raised during the seminar was on the genuine need to strike a balance between 'rights and duties, freedom and order' in society. The latest political changes have granted many rights to Nepali citizens, which were otherwise denied, but subsequent inability of the state to guarantee these rights is putting new found political opportunity on the verge of collapse. This is primarily because many non-state-actors have emerged and they are demanding too much from the state. Perhaps Dev Raj Dahal was right to say that it is not possible for a country like Nepal to opt for a 'revolutionary step' when we have limited resources at our disposal. This will only further weaken Nepali state.

On the constitutional front participants enquired about the modus operandi of CA election, state restructuring (unitary versus federal), and model of governance (republican versus democratic republicanism). The most significant question that was being raised in all successive seminars as how can we establish 'rule of law with clear separation of power in the country' when Nepali political leaders are engaged in interpreting the law the way they wanted and are intrinsic in (ab)using the power. The other important point that was raised in different places was on the 'mixed electoral system' and its capacity to embrace and guarantee significant participation of marginalised groups/regions in the future governance. Women participants in all four places, Dalits in Kanchanpur and majority of the participants from the far-western regions (Dadeldhura and Kanchanpur) are still cynical about their supposed meaningful share in the governance. The main concern of these groups was how best to ensure seats in the CA election through proportional electoral system and their region gets meaningful share for that reason. An important question was raised in Surkhet on the possible inclusion of non-resident Nepalis in the CA election. There is a query on the inclusion of Young Communist League (YCL) cadres in the upcoming CA election? Participants were concerned what impact (positive or negative) will it have on CA election if they are mobilised during CA election.

Kashi Raj Dahal also informed about 'right to information bill', that is all set to come into force, and its role in creating transparency in decision making process.

Analysis of the proceedings

While carefully analysing proceeding of the seminars in all four places it is clear that most of the enquires/questions thrown-out by the participants were mostly on managing internal security (by addressing the genuine demands of various groups), adoption of efficient foreign policy by Nepali state, speed up democratisation process (by holding CA election in time), instill civic political culture in society, craft efficient policies in every sectors of governance and generate opportunities for the youth so that they become more loyal to Nepali state. For this perhaps some sort of common consensus (national vision needs to be developed) is required across political parties and members of civil society. This is crucially important whilst crafting foreign policy which will help to upheld national interests and protect external sovereignty of the state. For this, as mentioned above, we need to develop a vision paper, without this; there is little we can do to protect our national interests. However, it seems that we are still not working in this direction. The eight political parties have their different approaches to foreign policy and other issues of national importance.

With regard to find out ways to reduce global injustices which have impacted, in one way or the other, all small states including Nepal - for this we perhaps need to work with other countries and international organisations. However, again we need to have our own national charter which will guide us whilst working with other countries/organisations and reduce the undercurrent generated by the forces of globalisation, imperialism and others. On the communism and ideology front - Nepal perhaps need to adopt more realistic and internally accepted system of governance as we are heavily dependent on foreign aid. If we adopt policies/systems which failed to generate greater internal legitimacy will prove suicidal for the nation. So we have to adopt the Boudhha's middle way - the GOLDEN PATH.

On the ways to developing democratic political culture across political parties, leaders, sister organizations of political parties and within the societal actors - this can be achieved by introducing civic education at different layers of society including in the schools, colleges and beyond that. This will also reduce the notion of anti-intellectual culture which is highly prevalent in our political parties, make public intellectuals rather than political and deepen the democratisation process. What is also clear from the proceeding is that there is great deal of nationalistic democratic sentiment running across the societal forces but Nepali leaders have failed to work in this direction. Nepali people have great deal of faith on democracy, whatever we call it, but we cannot bear to have cycles of political movements in the country. Hence a great deal of responsibility falls on political parties (as they are the real carrier of political change) to manipulate and capatalise historic opportunity for the interest of Nepali people and Nepali state. To reduce class and societal struggle or conflict - perhaps we need to introduce social justice (through social democracy) in a real sense which will certainly minimize the level of conflict and struggle. At the same we also need to analyse the 'class character' of our political leaders across political parties including leftists who champion for this cause. However, the need of the hour is to substitute 'class struggle with class coordination'. By and large, we need to readjust (particularly our leaders) with the new realities and develop people centric policies and discourage culture of impunity from society.

Conclusion

What can be drawn from the proceeding of the seminars is that FES seems to have fulfilled its objective of advocating civic education and social democracy which are very much needed in Nepali society. The programme was well received and succeeded to fulfill its goals in all four districts. The debate in all four places generated very valid questions which need immediate answer from Nepali political leaders collectively. Any delay in responding these questions will be disastrous for the country. Society is moving fast and in no way our leadership can deserve to retreat. The greatest challenge for Nepali state is to garner public loyalty towards state and legitimate political actors rather than towards non-state actors. If the public loyalty diverts towards non-state-actors, nation-state automatically loses their internal sovereignty. Perhaps its right time for our leadership to think in this direction as well and realise that efficient and honest leadership and strong state can have vibrant democracy. Equally important is that public sphere needs to be vibrant, strong and all inclusive for strong state and to deepen democratisation process. All said, our society and citizens should also be able to guide leadership in a way that they talk more about policies (rather than scanty speeches) and are accountable to citizens at large (rather than political parties).

 
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