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Interface between Civil Society & Political Parties

National seminar organized by Tanka Prasad Acharya Memorial Foundation (TPAMF)

Kathmandu, 02 December 2013

Ritu Raj Subedi
Associate Editor
The Rising Nepal

Of late, the role of civil society (CS) has come under close scrutiny. The CS had awakened the masses ahead of the April Movement in 2006 when the parties had lost their traction. But, it failed to keep the momentum following the first historic Constituent Assembly election. The first CA met its ignominious death without delivering the statute and the CS could not do anything to save it. Its prominent members kept mum as the ethnicity-guided federal agenda clobbered Nepal's age-old communal harmony and good will. It was a trying time and the CS was expected to come up to douse the fire of ethnic chauvinism but in vain. It again came a gutser when the CPN-M attempted to foil the second CA polls with bombs and banda. There was a room for the CS to mediate between the state and the poll-opposing parties but it could convince neither side to chart out a political course acceptable to all sides.

True, the CS does not hold a magic wand to solve the crisis of sweeping scale at one go. Still the people expect that it would come to the scene at the time of crisis of confidence at the national level. Today there is also a demand for drawing a demarcation line between the CS and the parties. The nexus between the CS and the parties has been started to be seen in a negative light. It should not lose its integrity and independent spirit. The CS 'as an embodiment of reason, faith and feeling' should alert the parties from going adrift. It must be able to check the tendency of politics to confine to personal, family, private and privileged interests. A synergic relation between the parties and the CS bring positive changes in the society. Against this background, the Tanka Prasad Acharya Memorial Academy and FES, Nepal organised a seminar to highlight the interface between civil society and parties. The key speakers and participants of the gathering attempted to define the role of CS and its relations with the political parties. They concurred that the CS needs to be dynamic and vibrant to deal with the new emerging challenges. The seminar saw three working papers with participants offering their candid suggestions and comments on them.

CS should reflect diversity: Acharya

Former chairman of Constitutional Committee in the erstwhile Constituent Assembly Nilambar Acharya said that it was a challenge to make CS active and effective in the changed context.

"The CS normally takes to the streets to voice for the cause of the people when they are deprived of basic freedom and other democratic rights. Our history testifies to this fact. Late Tanka Prasad Acharya led civic and political campaign when the Nepali society was virtually in dark period," he said.

He said that the CS asserted its role as the time demands to do so. "There is no reason to be pessimistic about the role of CS. It is going strong with each passing year."

Acharya said that civil society should reflect diversity and see the things with a broader perspective. "It often stands for open society and strives to break down the social walls."

Human rights activist Sushil Pyakurel was a bit critical about the role of CS. He said that it failed to intervene as the first CA was dissolved on their watch without writing the new constitution.

Since the April Movement the CS members were virtually silent. The CS members did not speak out against the slogan of the ethnicity-based federalism for fear of being labelled pratigami (regressive). Intellectuals and universities did not launch substantial debates on the issue with the CS members getting trapped into rhetoric.

"The political parties are obsessed with power game but the CS works for people's empowerment and creates a social base for the parties," he said.

He reminded that late Tanka Prasad Acharya played a role to provide a space for the parties to come together in the run-up to the people's movement in 1990. The leaders from Nepali Congress and Communist Parties assembled in the yard of his house. "The public space he literally provided was expanded to Chaksibari, a toponym of the residence of late Ganesh Man Singh. The meeting at Chaksibari, attended by Nepalese and Indian leaders, inaugurated the people's movement to topple the Panchayat system."

'CS must transcend partisan boundaries'

FES, Nepal head Dev Raj Dahal offered conceptual framework to the CS and urged for a synergy between them to effect positive changes in the society. He minutely differentiates between the CS and the political party. "Party is a part, not a whole. It fractionalizes the society to expand constituencies while the genuine CS's function is to serve as a bridge and transcend partisan boundaries."

He said that the CS espouses the satta guna (goodness) and is based on enlightenment values of freedom, equality, solidarity, ecological justice and peace while the tendency of political parties is rajo guna (passion for power). The civil society is a domain of virtue and, therefore, works with the spirit of niskam karm (selfless action) while the political party is the domain of power, rights and partisan selfishness. "As an agent of social change, the common dharma of civil society and the political parties is to de-traditionalise the general society and the work for its continuous reforms, renewal and rationalisation. "This helps to liberate the tendency of political parties of Nepal to indulge into pre-modern politics of divide and rule, and command and control, and move to modern politics of cooperative action to achieve the goals of national government, a new constitution and comprehensive reconciliation for public goods, justice and peace."

Dahal said that the CS as an embodiment of reason, faith and feeling must instil historical awareness among the parties' leaders to respond to the changing aspirations of Nepali citizens and reform the tendency of politics to confine to personal, family, private and privileged interests. "This helps political parties to strengthen the social base of the politics and avert the inclination of extra-constitutional participation of non-state armed actors and extra-parliamentary formation of caucus politics."

Dahal emphasized that the CS should broaden the binary code of politics steered by friend and foe and aim for a new social contract, a workable constitution owned by all citizens. "This helps remove the single unit determinism of politics such as class, ethnic, gender, territorial and ideological divisions, which destabilises democracy's optimal values of inclusion of the Other and weaken inner- party democracy."

The historical crisis in Nepal's reformist politics reflects the weakness of political parties to uphold the middle path of politics and the capacity of mediating agencies of society to open up reforms in each generation of citizens and the rational articulation of political life. "The CS groups have to play a role to democratise the party's relations with their sister organisation and strengthen inter and intra-party dialogues for consensus building on major issues."

Tanka Prasad Acharya Memorial Academy chairman professor Som Prasad Gauchan said that the CS in Nepal failed to contribute to the socio-economic changes. "We did not witness its effective role in the recent second CA poll when the CPN-M enforced banda and caused disruptions to foil the polls. Rather, it is the people, who assumed the role of civil society with their higher turnout on the polling day and wiser decision of choosing the moderate forces through the ballot."

Call for adopting trans-disciplinary approach

Naresh Rimal, a freelancer associated with Transformation Society International, presented his working paper 'Civil society paradox and political parties,' in which he offers conceptual framework and historical perspective to the civil society and analysed its relationship with the political parties.

Quoting Thomas Carothers, Rimal said that it is a broader concept, encompassing all the organisations and associations that exist outside the state, including political parties and the market.'

"The distinction between the CS and the parties is that where parties seek to control state power, the CS groups do not," he said.

In Nepal, civil society and political parties' nexus is quite blurred. The established and growing tendency of the third sector, especially the NGOs is to participate in the public sphere and the political activities through active participation and seek control over the government. Most often there are parties that seek funding from those NGOs which either receive funding from international agencies with political and social allegiance, he said.

Rimal further said that the relationship between civil society and political parties has been rationalised having the important need in ensuring democracy. "But, given the proliferations of organisations, especially the NGOs, there is no guarantee of such wishful thinking. We can always glean such outcome from our neighbouring country of Bangladesh. With the highest per capita NGOs in the world, Bangladesh does not guarantee free and fair associational life and reduce sectarian violence. Similarly, groups calling themselves civil society groups played important role through funding and literally voicing their allegiance to the political parties to thwart pre 2006 regime did not lead Nepal towards peaceful and more amicable outcome.

"Therefore, only non-partisan non-political CS groups can give life to the political parties. It is not only the question of civil society but also of the parties to make themselves democratic through transparency, accountability and virtue of ethics. The key aspects of civil society and political parties' relationship are thus determined through the level of influence and not the direction of influence."

What the civil society should do:

1. It should not only carry singular issues and approaches but also the trans-disciplinary approach,

2. It should take advantage of its social and cultural domain to educate the political parties,

3. It should hold discussion on endogenous factors and influences that have grounding on something that is reflective of the people at large specific to the state.

'Women CS, parties must forge partnership'

The gist of Laxmi Karki's paper 'the relationships between the woman civil society and political parties':

Civil society and the NGOs

Conventionally, the civil society encompasses those organisations and groups formed spontaneously and voluntary to put pressure on the government for the public welfare works by cooperating with and facilitating it. However, confusion has been created after the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) started to assume the role of CS. Their role has been recognised as they worked to ensure the rights of and generate awareness among the marginalised groups, castes, regions or professions, which either lack access to the market and the state or exploited by the both agencies. The government has recognised the NGOs' participation in the programmes implemented at the community level.

However, most of the NGOs have ingratiated themselves with the donors in search of livelihood and job opportunities instead of working for community with a sense of voluntary spirit. Or they are groups active to run the community programmes for which the donors supply money directly by bypassing the government. Besides, there are consumers' groups that have risen above the community level and put pressure on the government for the common welfare activities. These factors have made it difficult to distinguish between the CS and the NGOs.

The Women Civil Society

The women constitute a dominant portion of civil society. They have been active in attaining human and democratic rights along with their own rights. There are several dimensions within the women rights movement. On one hand, they are engaged in the common civic campaign to get political, social, economic and cultural rights. On the other, even within the broader canvass of women movement lie sub-groups in addition to the divergent problems and the interests. For example, dalit women, ethnic women, Muslim women, Madhesi women and those victimised by the trafficking. The NGOs have been representing a larger portion of women civil society. The activities of both - the political parties and the women NGOs- have helped each other to gain mutual benefits.

The women movement has been moving on two parallel lines - political and NGO-led. In the first category comes a large segment of women involved in the fight for political freedom by becoming the sister wings of the different political parties. In the second category has the women associated with the NGOs and involved in development and gender empowerment.

The political parties have their conflicting views in regard with the role of woman NGOs. Many parties have acknowledged the role of the women NGOs but some others have derided them as being involved in 'dollar harvesting.' According to Bimal Phuyal, an INGO activist, the parties have adopted double standards and opportunistic outlook towards the NGOs. "Some intellectuals and leaders accuse the NGOs of being engaged in earning dollars if the latter fail to work in accordance with their interests or if they do not get economic benefits in form of consultancy and other monetary incentives and facilities.

Researcher and women rights activist Dr Meena Acharya said that the role and contribution of the NGOs has not been duly recognised. On one hand, NGOs' contribution in building the capacity of women, establishing agendas and creating pressure is appreciated. On the other, they are criticised for making a fast buck, said Dr Acharya.

CPN-UML and Nepali Congress women leader Binda Pandey and Uma Regmi appreciated the role of women NGOs but UCPN-M central member Sashi Shrestha is not ready to accept women NGOs as civil society. She said women NGOs talk only about the gender equality while the women groups affiliated with the parties stand for total women liberation, which is broader than the concept of woman equality. According to Shrestha and UML woman leader Shanta Manabi, the women NGOs have hijacked the credit for raising the issue of equal parental property. They said that the communist parties had been raising this issue for a long time. Manabi said, "While giving political training to them in 2028 BS, CPN general secretary Pushpa Lal had emphasised on guaranteeing daughter's equal right on the parental property. Thus, it is wrong that the women NGOs solely pushed the agenda."

Some concluding points:

" The women civil society has played positive role to change the traditional attitude of parties and the state towards women,

" Women leaders as well as male leaders, who are sensitive to the gender issues, could play vital role to enhance women capacity in and outside party,

" Political parties and the women civil society need to forge collaboration to fully ensure women identity and abolish all discriminatory practices against women.

'Parties must be accountable to people'

Roshan Pokharel's paper 'the legal provisions relating to the political parties in Nepal' argues that the parties have miserably failed to abide by the constitutional and legal provisions. For example, Article 142 of Part 18 of the Interim Constitution mentions that the parties should make public the details of funds and income source and resources for bringing about such funds in order to qualify for registration at the Election Commission but they have not bothered to do so.

He said that one could not be fully sure whether the parties met the criteria to register at the Election Commission.

The interim statute clearly spelt out that there must be an inclusive provision that the executive committees at various levels the executive committee at various levels include the members from women, Dalit and the excluded and oppressed sectors. The constitution of the party must have an effective provision to maintain discipline of its members.

"The EC shall not register any political party or organization which discriminates against any citizen of Nepal in becoming its member on the basis merely of religion, caste, tribe, language or sex or the name, objective, insignia or flag of which is of such a nature as to jeopardize the religious and communal unity of the country or to fragment the country or the Constitution or Rules of such party or organization have the objective of protecting and promoting party-less or single party system."

Pokharel said that the statute had clearly mentioned that the parties should not be formed based on the caste or religion but this provision had not been fully observed.

"If a common person fails to pay tax, s/he will be blacklisted but there is no state authority to punish the parties if the latter submit their audits to the EC. The most irony is that they will escape the fine by just paying Rs 100," he said.

He said that the existing legal provisions had given the parties upper hand and let them off the hook in case of serious violation of laws. "It seems that they do not want to be accountable to the laws."

The parties' registration provisions also lack clarity, he said and added that more stringent laws should be formulated to make the parties accountable to the people. "Democracy can only become strong and vibrant if the parties run on the basis of democratic values and norms."

Comments from the floor

Shyam Prasad Adhikari- The seminar needs to draw a conceptual framework as to what kind of the civil society should be there. It should come up with the findings. While the political parties should run independently, the civil society must not work on the basis of hierarchy.

Amuda Shrestha - From where did come the concept of woman civil society? It looks bizarre to classify the civil society into men and women categories. This fogs the issues of civil society. Anyone - be it man or woman- could raise the genuine social, political and economic issues. The CS should play its role to make the parties aware of the country's situation, not act merely as their agent.

Dr Prem Sharma- With some parties demanding a probe into the alleged vote rigging, they have apparently distrusted the voters' decisions. Karki's paper is practical but it missed out the name of Moti Devi, who acted as messenger between Calcutta and Kathmandu to supply information and messages during the rule of Rana Oligarchy in Nepal.

Santosh Pariyar- It is a matter of investigation whether the role of civil society shrank or was forced to shrink. The three papers lack direction in identifying the role of civil society.

Bishnu Hari Nepal - There is the need of taking confidence building measures among the parties and intellectuals. The ideological confrontation must be minimised. The NGOs are important actors but the foreign aid should come through the government's channel. The civil society's role had not been effective in devising the foreign policy. So far as the participation of women is concerned, Nepal is the first country in South Asia to ensure their 33 per cent representation in every organ of the state. In recent poll, five to six millions Nepalese living abroad could not exercise their franchise.

Meena Acharya- The role of civil society must be clearly defined. The relation between the political parties and the civil society is both cooperative and dialectical at the same time. It is a matter of happiness that the parties are gradually making their position clear about the role of the civil society.

Ram Prasad Upadhyaya Pokharel - Late Tanka Prasad Acharya spearheaded the political, economic, social, administrative and legal reforms during his 18-month long tenure as the prime minister of the country. The higher turnout of the voter in the recent CA poll is a testimony to the fact that the people have become more aware and mature. The accusation that the women get their rights here only after the donor and foreigners put pressure on the government to do so is serious one. The idea of inclusiveness sans the quality is unacceptable. The statements of Dev Raj Dahal stressed on emulating the native culture. It is praiseworthy view.

Rajendra Chhetri- It carries no sense when the media have to always nourish the political parties that have been often found flouting the laws. The civil society failed to do something notable to ensure good governance and curb the widespread corruption. For example, when Rs 3 million is disbursed to execute development projects in the village, hardly one million rupee is spent. Likewise, the Rs 5- million parliamentarian funds have been grossly misused. But, to the dismay of the public, the civil society is keeping shtum.

Achut Bahadur Karki - We are like the spectators of the political drama. Where was the civil society when the CA was dissolved on its watch? What was the civil society doing when the CPN-M went on rampage to curtail the people's franchise? The civil society should be free of all greed and attachments. It is an independent entity that should speak out on the matters of public concern. The state should classify the civil society organisations and the statute should clearly specify its role. This is a high time the civil society played its role in the policy-making.

Binod Prasad Acharya- The civil society movement began in 1993 BS under the stewardship of late Tanka Prasad Acharya. The women movement also commenced from that period. The political parties remember the people only at the time of election. The civil society should act as a referee. Of 26 lawmakers nominated by the new government, the representatives from the civil society should be also nominated as CA members. The intellectuals should work to bring the CPN-M to the constitution-making process.

Hem Raj Subedee - The CS should learn to remain within its limit. But, it should be bold. The working papers lack citations. Please, don't let the civil society divide into different categories. It is wrong to put the NGOs into the civil society category.

Dr Shova Gajurel- There is division of society into different castes and classes. This must be stopped. All the parties must rise above the petty interests and unit for national common agendas.

Narayan Regmi- We are rich in our indigenous experiences. Based on our own knowledge and experiences, we should develop our own model of system. Like wild elephants, the parties violate the laws and the constitution. Our generation have grown up without seeing the political transition end. Is that the new generation have to also suffer for the same thing?

Chiranjibi Bhandari - What is the boundary line between the civil society and the political parties? Is their relation cooperative or competitive or compromising?

Jhalak Subedi - The approach of our civil society is traditional. The CS actors are waiting for to be leaders, lawmakers and ministers. Is that the political parties want to minimise the role of civil society after the April Movement in 2006? It has become obvious that the CS has failed to intervene at the time of crisis.

Khem Raj Regmi - There is interdependent relationship between the civil society and the political parties. The goal of the parties is to run the government and the civil society is to make them aware about the issues of public concerns. The CS should not show its greed for power. The election is getting costly and it is beyond the capacity of common people. The CS should work to make the election a less-expensive affairs and transparent. The leaders should also submit the details of their income after stepping down from the government. The local polls need to be held within six months. The CS should voice for this.

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