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Initiative for Democracy Building: Education about Voters and Civic Rights

Organised by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES)

16-17 October 2007, Sindhuli

Report prepared by Tara Dahal, MA. Sociology and Anthropology, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu.
dahal_tara@yahoo.com


Introduction

Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Nepal office organized a two- day seminar on "Initiative for Democracy Building: Education about Voters and Civic Rights" on October 16-17, 2007 at Sindhuli District. Over 150 participants including Chief District Officer, local chiefs of Police and Nepal Army, election officers, lawyers, teachers, leaders of various political parties, civil society, Dalits, ethnic and women's groups, etc took part in the meeting. The overarching aim of the program is to educate Nepali citizens on civic and voters rights, enable them to meaningfully participate in the political process, particularly, on the upcoming Constituent Assembly election and contribute to the formation of a genuinely participant political culture. The program was organized with the cooperation of German Foreign Ministry. Dev Raj Dahal, Head of FES Nepal office explained his paper on "State-Building and Social Transformation: An Overview of Contemporary Context," Kashi Raj Dahal, constitutional expert and former law secretary, narrated the "Introductory Book on Constituent Assembly" and both together introduced "Handouts on Democracy" to the participants for discussion. All the participants and even non-participants, local libraries and schools got copies of each book and the paper. The discussion that followed was very thought-provoking, critical and creative.

Discussion

In the floor discussion participants wanted to know many issues--some conceptual and other political and practical ones about the multi-verse of democracy and even offered suggestion to improve the current political conditions in Nepal. On state building they asked how central government can maintain control over entire territory by controlling armed groups, militias and criminals. They viewed that state's core capacity is central to exercise sovereignty and maximize its ability to manage the forced movement of population due to communal conflict in Tarai, violation of human rights of internally displaced people, economic decline and emerging social crisis. Lawyer Prem Chandra argued that politics in the absence of state sovereignty will lead to a state of anarchy. He expressed worry about the shift from state-building to power-addictive tendency of political leaders and "me-only" mentality. In a question asked by Min P. Ghimire about the concept of nation, Dev Raj Dahal said," A nation is a people based on national-self-determination. It also possesses a state and its institutions." Krishna Hari Ghimire asked as to whether the principles of human rights can be sincerely implemented in a weak Nepali state where resources are limited and leadership know no rule of law other than their self-interest thus incubated a culture of impunity. He suggested that political leaders require transformation of in mentality to value-based politics. Dahal responded saying that a production-based economy and a redistributive regime are central to improve human rights conditions in Nepal. There is a weak linkage between human rights and public policy in Nepal. Local political parties and civil society groups should cultivate goal-seeking, accountable and enlightened leadership in the long run.

Sabita Koirala felt the need to restructure party leadership to make party structures gender and youth sensitive and inclusive of social and cultural diversity. To this, D. R. Dahal said, "Establishing a democratic political culture in a society that has for decades been acculturated to a hukumi sashan (rule by fiat) is difficult but not impossible. It requires democratization of public life in various stages."

Deepak Mishra stressed on "de-criminalization" of politics as a precondition to establish rule of law, civic education for youth for transforming their parochial loyalties into the nation-state and abolition of hereditary succession of leadership. He also urged the role of intellectuals in preparing the road map for the country's state-building, development and peace. R. Devkota and Shanta Pathak stressed on the role of think tanks to educate the party leaders about the solution oriented vision of the nation. On the nature of the state, they asked the resource persons to explain the viability as well as costs and benefits of federalism, suitability of the nature of the Head of State and legitimacy of the regime. On all these questions Dahal said, "We have to evolve our own models on all these areas. Organic intellectuals of society should bring the vision of people before the experts for debates. The international community is willing to support our initiative for democratic Nepal. But, the vision should be based on shared values of all Nepalese people." He said that 12-point accord, Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and Interim Constitution have ideologically metamorphosed all incumbent parties into change-oriented one. But now they are indulged more on mutual recrimination than assuming mutual accountability on the promises they have made. Their contesting historical identities are reinforcing their current behavior and political socialization. This has generated a contradiction between their promise and action-coordination towards the values, institutions and goals of peace, CA elections and development. The delay in the implementation of peace agreement and holding Constituent Assembly elections mainly spring from this fact. There is an urgency of trust-building in order to maintain conductive atmosphere to prevent state failure and concert position on CA elections in the future.

Janak Bahadur asked as to which approach-- class, ethnic, gender, and caste-- will end Nepal's socially-embedded discriminatory practices and create an equity-based political system. To this, Dahal replied "Our nationhood should be based on civic nationality. Adoption of the concept of civic citizenship and humanitarian principles will make our state modern and liberate the people from their primordial inclinations. But human rights approach must involve four key phases--liberation of entire people including Kamaiya (bonded labor), entitlement to rights of various historically disenfranchised sections of society including Dalits and women, social opportunities for workers, poor and indigenous people and establishment of good governance. "Obviously," argued Shanta Pathak, "democracy requires democratically virtuous citizens."

There are good provisions in the interim constitution, such as social justice, social security, right to work, education, health, information, culture etc. This constitution has also sought to extend the concept of citizenship from political to social, economic and cultural spheres. But, ironically, the state does not have sufficient capacity and resources to realize these rights. This has contributed to a chasm between moral commitment and political reality and the intensification of identity politics. In this context, capacity-building of the state is very important so that it can maintain a balance between civic order and deliver key good governance functions. An effective state reflects society's genuine will, interests and aspirations including the reflection of local sentiments and political culture. The Nepalese political parties and civil society need to communicate properly to the public about their rights and duties and enlist their participation in the democratization process. They should allow them to learn, understand and make use of their rights peacefully.

Chief District Officer Rishi Kesh Niraula opined that management of political transition in Nepal requires numerous sequences and also a caution on the part of state leaders, political parties and non-state actors. "Civic education," he said, "should build public consciousness, a collective understanding about the state and its functionaries such as civil administration and judiciary. A weak state cannot serve the public, therefore, civil administration must be strengthened so that it can contribute to the timely holding of free and fair CA election." Ujjwal Baral articulated the need to invent alternative means to end the current political deadlock in the country and discover common ground formula for the common program of ruling parties until the holding of CA elections. This is essential to link democratic process to peaceful resolution of conflict.

Constitutional expert Kashi Raj Dahal explained various traditions of constitution-drafting process in the world and argued that the constitution drafted by Constituent Assembly (CA) is the most participatory process. He explained three modes of election- majoritarian, proportional and mixed one and highlighted the merits and demerits of all these systems. One participant asked: Does fully proportional election system as demanded by many ethnic groups and CPN (Maoist) undermine individual sovereignty and freedom? K. R. Dahal answered that a lot of things depend on constitutional safeguards, political culture and roles of various institutional culture of society. Many women participants demanded that women candidates should be given more positions in first-past-the-post election system than the proportional one so that they can become competitive in the future political development of the nation. Similarly, laws regarding abolition of patriarchy must be enforced in earnest so that it enables attitude change of the holders of power and leads to social equality. Civic education on the basis of social equality should be imparted from the childhood age up to graduate levels. This will provide citizens cognitive, effective and evaluative orientation towards civic virtues and rule of law.

Local Development Officer posed that as civil servants are posted in various places they do not have option to cast their votes to the candidates of their liking. The same problem applies to many young people working in the Gulf countries as they do not have any opportunity to cast in the place they work. One dilemma posed by a worker was this: The constitution promises to give rights to them as per law but laws are never formulated. To this Kashi Raj Dahal replied, "Workers should build coalition for action in this matter and lobby for the realization of their rights granted by the constitution." Participants wanted to know when court decision is based on majority formula how it can guarantee fair justice where every judge agrees. He reminded the participants of Nepali aphorism: "Justice should not be based on a platform for thief and death sentence for a saint." Rule of law should be based on reason, rationality and ethics. Legal ethics defines the boundaries of rights and duties of citizens. He expressed optimism that Nepal's archaic tradition is undergoing change due to pressures of the affected parties, growth of a cosmopolitan civic society and the influence of humanitarian laws.

Constant voters and civic education program and democratization of society can contribute to the formation of a rational public which is essential for democratic stability, justice and peace. A political culture based on human rights tries to balance between individual rights and collective interests. Participants also raised a number of questions regarding the roles of political parties, civil society and people's institution in the continuous education. They also made comparison with political education imparted by the educational institutions of the state and indoctrination by political parties and demanded that intellectuals should formulate a compulsory and regular civic course to all the stakeholders of society so that they do not deviate from constitutional principles while exercising their fundamental and human rights. Democratic stability works best if it is buttressed by a coherence between law and politics and maintains an equilibrium between popular aspirations, power and legitimacy.

Shanta Pathak asked whether the market-driven globalization can be reshaped to the political interest of people. Both the resource persons answered: global democratization processes, ecological universalism, humanitarian principles, the movement of global civil society, proliferation of social forums and social charters are trying to overcome the democratic deficit arising out of the current form of economic globalization and problems faced by people and nation-states, specially those nation-states of third world including Nepal. Global stability requires the promotion of mutual interest of both the rich and poor nations and formulation of common policies for the future.

Some participants were concerned not only about national political developments but also the implications of external events and sought answers about them. For example, why Constituent Assembly in Cambodia could not bring political stability there? Why CA drafted constitution in India has to frequently resort to presidential rule in Assam, Bodo and other states? Why the voices of political minorities remain unheard and unheeded in various countries including Nepal? Can CA election solve the present crisis of Burma? What lesions can Nepal earn from the experiences of other countries in constructing democratic political regime? K. R. Dahal answered all these questioned and argued that in order to make CA meaningful political leadership must be clear on four core issues-form of the head of state, structure and framework of the state, nature of democratic polity and protection of the interest of special areas and people which are historically dispossessed and are completely left in the backwaters of human development.

Conclusion

The participants of Sindhuli appeared concerned about the crisis of Nepali state, inability of seven-party government to create security environment conducive to hold CA elections and activities of various armed groups in the country's southern parts and suggested that FES should organize solution-oriented seminar in Kathmandu with key actors and engage with them in the formulation of concrete policy ideas. They were also concerned about the leadership and vision of the nation and preferred to abolish all forms of violence, create a democratic society based on human rights and participatory institutions and redesign the state based on shared interest of all Nepalese people. Only then, political actors and institutions, who are deviating from the path trodden by the constitution can be restored and people will have ownership on them.

In the evaluation of the program participants at Sindhuli district appreciated the inclusive nature of the seminar for the first time and observed that it has helped to improve the level of their understanding about political issues of the nation. They also promised that they will act as multipliers of knowledge at the grassroots level and within the communities they represent. But, they requested that in the future similar types of activities should be organizes on themes such as constitutional issues, peace building and development at Sindhuli district.

 
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