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Report on Initiative for Democracy Building: Building Modern State & Constitutional Questions

Organised by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES)

21-22 February, Nawalparasi


Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) organized a two-day seminar on "Initiative for Democracy Building in Nepal: Building Modern State and Constitutional Questions" on 21-22 February at Gainakot Village, Nawalparasi District. The participants of interaction program consist chiefly of political leaders across multi-party lines, members of civil society, NGO representatives, human rights workers, teachers, journalists, representatives of local women movement, police officers etc. The total number of participants was 116.

On the first session of the first day, Dev Raj Dahal, Head of FES, Nepal Dev Raj Dahal began his presentation by welcoming the participants. He gave a brief summary of how FES was founded and a small amount of seed money grew into such a great international movement for social democracy. He further added that FES has four principal values-- freedom, social justice, solidarity & peace. The principal areas that FES, Nepal has been working on since its foundation in Nepal are political discourse, labor issues, women rights and conflict and peace. He continued:

Civic knowledge is of supreme importance to rationalize our society and develop democratic political culture. Our society also possesses knowledge; it does not come from elsewhere. What we need to do is search it and use for our nation's development. Outside source can help us to attune them as per the spirit of time and help contextualize as per our needs.

He added, "Sovereignty rests on citizens. The sovereignty which our legislators exercise is just delegated. This is a reasons Constituent Assembly members are visiting the society to collect opinion on various aspects of national life. Many of the things citizens now articulate will be included in the new constitution. Therefore, public consultation on constitution-making must be informed." For a state to be stronger, four prerequisites have to be met: authority and capability of punishment, monopoly on taxation, loyalty of citizens to state and international recognition. The last one is uniquely important for tax cultivates the accountability of the state to its citizens. In a country where most of revenue comes through poor citizens' taxes, the state becomes redistributive; it the rich pay the bulk of tax, the state protects their property. If the state is largely financed through international revenues, that state loses policy sovereignty and become accountable to outside audience. This weakens the base of democracy.

Only that state can survive which fosters ties with the society and maintains democratic equilibrium. The basis of the modern state is ideology not biology. There are three principles as regards the nature of state: liberalist, Marxist and nationalist. None of these is pure and independent, they rather learning and influencing each other. The present era is governed by three factors: democratic inclusion, third generation of human rights, third generation of sovereignty and third generation of technology such as micro-electronics, information and communication. Nepali state and society must adjust to them, embed itself in the life of citizens and maintain autonomy from the interest groups of society.

In order to achieve a sustainable peace and solidarity at the time we are living is to strengthen the meaning of citizenship and foster civic identity which involves developing secular political and social identity transcending parochial ones rooted in the absolutization of caste, class, ethnicity, region and religion. State is the apparatus for the organization and management of society, hence the virtuous the state the stronger the society and vice versa. Sovereignty of people also means self-governance, an essential component of modern state, which can be progressively built up creating sense of security and mutual trust; rule of law; decentralization of power and responsibility; and expansion of social base of state through the participation of people in its rules, policies and institutions. He discussed about various types of leadership in society and argued that leaders must have the capacity to generalize the particular visions of contesting groups and translate them into a national one.

There are five central pillars for building a modern state: functional education, efficient economic policies to meet the growing needs and aspirations of citizens; constant technological innovation for the transformation of the structure of production; efficient organization manned by capable citizens; and visionary and accountable leadership who can inspire the citizens for collective action. The modern state is a civic state build on civic socialization of citizens. The sole purpose of the state is people's security, welfare, cooperation, solidarity and peace. We may become a failed or weak state if fundamentals of state are removed through erosion of monopoly on power, competitive violence, abdication of policy goals and perpetuation of clientalism now existing in the country. In order to create an independent nation with peace and justice, we must build up strong economy, formulate and implement humanist education, promote and use science and technology, create strong organization and finally and most importantly have visionary leadership capable of capturing the spirit of changing times. Dahal's presentation provoked a number of questions and observations.

Some participants argued that reservation may not liberate people for whom we are advocating it. People who are already well-off or have access will make the best use of it. Others questioned are parties all-powerful for making constitution? People are sovereign therefore all-powerful in deciding matter. Sovereignty does not rest in parties but on citizens. Democracy is an opportunity through which conflict can be resolved peacefully. Still others observed that such training should be organized at various levels of society. As citizens are not fully aware of their rights and responsibilities they trespass each others' and generate distrust and conflict in society. Many participants wanted to know various models of state and democracy such as Japan, Germany, India, China and Scandinavian countries.

The second session began with the presentation of Kashi Raj Dahal, noted Constitutional Expert. He discussed about key constitutional questions, such as federalism, nature of state, government, model of democracy, power balances and roles and responsibilities of various organs of government by giving examples of the USA, India, Germany, UK, Japan, China and Sweden. He argued, "Formation of new constitution is needed only in the case of major political change. Politics makes constitution and in turn constitution governs politics." So far various countries of the world are structured in three patterns: unitary, federal and semi-federal. In a unitary state, the central government is all powerful but may delegate its power to lower levels and apparatus of the state such as Japan, China, United Kingdom etc. In federal system, powers and responsibilities are shared by different levels of the state. The semi-federal are those that are characterized by intermingling of unitary and federal system such as Finland and France. When we evaluate the two systems, we find advantages and disadvantages on both sides. A federal system can ensure greater opportunities for representation, identity and access of the people to the government which a unitary state cannot as effectively as federal state. On the other hand, a federal system is expensive, may be at the risk of disintegration and conflict of various kinds if it lacks a strong national government representing the entire nation. His presentation also initiated debates among the participants and they revealed their preferences.

The second day discussion focused on the principles of democracy. Khagendra Prasai, lecturer of sociology at the Eastern Zonal University led the discussion. He said, "One of the most important components of democracy is inner party democracy. Only those parties which practice democracy in their internal affairs can expand democracy to state and society. History shows that some parties which were democratically elected to power have run authoritarian government. Democracy is not all about periodically electing leaders to the power. It is also about developing the kind of culture in our social and personal life in which everyone is treated equal, given opportunities, paid attention to, respected as person etc." In nutshell, in a democracy we must treat each other as equal. But are we really dedicated to creating and promoting such culture?

Another element that contributes to and is essential for the flourishing of democracy is scientific minded ness in citizens. Each of us has now realized the importance of right to information. How can this be materialized? Only by having and using scientific mind, we can have information and knowledge and through our own critical analysis can sift which one is true and which one false and can make our position on any issue or question. The famous scientist Albert Einstein said that democracy and constitution are not self-functioning entities, they provide us opportunity. Everything depends on moral and intellectual quality of citizen. How can these qualities be cultivated and fostered? The answer would be- through the use of reason and science.

People talk of preservation of culture but our progress lies in developing and transforming culture according to changing times. We may remain in status quo through its preservation and lag behind others if it is not rationalized. We must create culture which is democracy-friendly, equality-friendly, peace-friendly and which promotes our critical mindedness. A critical mind is a questing mind. Only by developing such mind, we can have meaningful discussion and opinions and we become independent citizen which is an essential element of the modern democracy. Only an informed and critical citizen can keep the democracy alive and vibrant.

The means that we choose to reach our ends also influence our life and system. For good ends we must choose good ends. Some people give exclusive importance to ends and adopt and justifies any means that lead them to the ends they have set and do not care for whether those means are moral. "End justifies the means" is what they believe. But in democratic system, means and ends are not separable. Both have to be moral and good. If we are committed to create a peaceful, prosperous and democratic society our choice of means should be governed accordingly.

On the second session of the second day Kashi Raj Dahal elaborated the principles and practices of democracy. Some principal ideas upon which a democratic system must be based are human rights, periodic election, separation of power, transparency, democratic political parties, peaceful competition, nonpartisan civil society and rule of law. Human rights of everyone must be duly respected. In order to make the system of making the representative responsible to the electors, system of recall is very effective which ensures the right and responsibilities of electors to withdraw representative and elect a new one.

A number of participants submitted their observations about the problems they faced in their particular life. Participants thanked for this program on such important issue of the country. They also suggested that such training should be provided to political leaders and educators. Others argued that they had never participated in program such as this. It clarified their understanding. Some participants expressed commitment that with the knowledge they gained and resource materials they got will be used to multiply their activities. At the end, Kashi Raj Dahal expressed that he is engaged in discussing constitutional issues with CA members and politicians and thanked all participants and local organizers for giving their time and attention despite busy schedule. The two evaluators-one male and one female, shared their experiences about the seminars and demanded to bring more on specialized topics.

 
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