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Political parties' role in deepening democracy

Two-day seminar jointly organised by Martyrs' Memorial Foundation (MMF) & Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Nepal Office

9-10 December 2014, Kathmandu

Prepared by Ritu Raj Subedi (subedirituraj@yahoo.com)

Political parties are the vehicle of socio-economic transformations. They are the conscious-rousers among the people. The ideas of freedom, equality and fraternity gained wider currency with the evolution of parties in the modern society. These concepts are the integral components of democracy. The parties bridge between the government and the state. They renew their democratic credentials through the periodic elections so as provide greater legitimacy to their acts, behaviours, rule and the system. Democracy is constantly refined by the parties' rational yet relentless democratic exercises, people's active participation in them and the development of democratic institutions.

Nepal has more than 70 years old history of political parties. They came into being in course of fighting against the family rule of autocratic Ranas. Prachanda Gorkha, the first political party of Nepal, was set up in 1980 BS with the objective of abolishing the Rana rule. In 1993 BS came another revolutionary party- 'Praja Parishad'. The famous four martyrs of Nepal - Dasharath Chanda, Ganga Lal Shrestha, Dharma Bhakta Mathema and Sukra Raj Sastri- were the active members of this party that also roped king Tribhuvan into joining their campaign for the establishment of democracy and civil rights. Nepal's two influential parties- Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal- were born with their long-term goal of bringing the broader political and economic reforms to the nation. Despite being splits and disintegrated in different times, these two forces continue to show their strong presence in the Nepalese society to the day.

Nepal stands at the crossroads of bigger political changes at the moment. It is struggling to write the new constitution through the Constituent Assembly (CA), an overdue task of the Nepalese politics since more than 65 years. Writing the national charter from the hands of elected representatives is perhaps the best democratic way to create a supreme legal document involving all the stakeholders. Once the nation gets the statute from the CA, it will pass another milestone in deepening and consolidating democracy. Although the nation has come a long way since it saw the first light of democracy many decades ago, our democratic journey is still on the halfway because it was punctuated by the coups, conflicts and inter-party confrontations from time to time.

Political parties, civil society, media and other professional and constitutional bodies need to rise to the occasion to overcome the challenges of democracy during the transition. They require honouring and promoting the basic democratic values, norms and principles. To respect popular mandate, rule of law, create and strengthen democratic institutions and promote civic culture is necessary to enhance and rekindle the democratic spirit. Against this backdrop, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Nepal Office and Martyr Memorial Foundation (MMF) conducted a two-day seminar on 'Political parties' role in deepening democracy in Nepal' in December of 2014. Politicians, civil society leaders, experts and informed citizens participated in the seminar. Their speeches and comments are as follows:

Day 1

Opening Session

Daman Nath Dhungana, former Speaker of House of Representatives

The new constitution should be drafted on the basis of consensus. The parties should also forge consensus even for starting the constitutional process of voting in the CA. Multiparty system and the political parties in Nepal are no longer in danger from any exterior forces. If there is any threat to democracy, it is not from ex-monarchy or any other extremist forces but it is from pro-multiparty forces themselves. Democracy is itself a complete term and no any adjectives are needed to attach to it. We need a meaningful democracy that should address the social, cultural and economic needs of the people. Mere civil rights are not enough. The CA has been held hostage by four to five leaders. Our entire system is collapsing as we have given disproportionate level of focus on the statute making. Other genuine and burning issues are in shadow owing to this. The Maoist movement is the byproduct of the failure of parliamentary parties. The CA needs to hold dialogue with those forces that are outside it or are against the vital gains such as federalism and secularism. There should be the maximum consensus on the statute writing.

Taranath Ranabhat, former Speaker, the House of Representatives

The political parties and the people failed to give due attention to the consolidation of democracy right after the 1990 political change. Democratic values and norms are on the constant decline. A handful of top leaders from major parties have hijacked the rights of the Constituent Assembly (CA). They are not making the CA as the locus of the meaningful debate on the statute writing. They chose hotels and resorts to settle the vital disputes of statute. How can democracy be strengthened by such opaque activities?" Instead of holding the brainstorming sessions on the constitutional issues, they are engaged in the blame game and brickbats. Owing to the blowing up of the ethnic agenda out of all proportion, the national unity is in tatters. Let's first unite the nation. All should press the leaders to tread a national path. The people's mandate is being insulted as the CA, an elected body, is held hostage of indecision.

Dhundi Raj Shastri, a socialist thinker and MMF chair

Socialism is the dream of martyrs and it can be materialized only through a uniformed ideological movement in the country. This will help do away with the various anomalies and deviations. Development works should start from the villages so that lower section of the society will benefit from democracy that is being captured by a handful capitalists and bourgeoisie. Richer are getting richer and the poor poorer. Socialism ensures economic balance, political rights and promotes social values. The citizens should have easy access to the health and education facilities provided by the government.

Dev Raj Dahal, FES, Nepal office head

Deepening democracy in society requires constant political education about enlightenment so that citizens know the ways to freedom, social justice, solidarity and peace and remove agencies of socialization that subordinates them.

The emerging democratic values are popular sovereignty, social inclusion, principles of affected, subsidiarity, social contact and provisions of rights and duties. These are cosmopolitan values and can prevent the polarization and paralysis of politics on the basis of personal and group interests. Deepening democracy requires democratization of public institutions of governance- political parties- (inner-party democracy), media (contribution to public opinion formation), civil society (defense of public interests) and production structures need to be democratized so that politics became public, not personalization of power and productively used for the production of suitable laws and development policies. A state of contentment of citizens, blind servility to leadership, apathy and inertia is the state of cronyism and lack of accountability. It corrupts democracy from the base and paralyzes the society.

Deepening democracy entails the power separation not only between the state, market and civil society and legislative, executive and judicial powers but also across the social, economic and political powers.

Deepening democracy requires continuous circulation of youths in political power through election.

Deepening democracy demands not only the winner-takes-all game but also a respect to opposition, inclusion of minorities and unrepresented and political drop-out groups. It adheres to the ethos of compromise of legitimate interests and peacefully resolves interests, ideology and identity-based conflicts to the optimal satisfaction of all sides.

Ram Hari Khatiwada, CA member

There is a fat chance of getting the new constitution by January 22 next year. The top leaders have put themselves at the centre as they hold talks on the constitution writing and power-sharing issues, forcing the nation to go through the acute transition. How can we write the new statute when there is neither consensus nor an agreement to go for process to settle the disputed matters? The term 'martyr' has lost its essence. Martyr is one who suffers for the sake of principle or sacrifices his/her life for the welfare of the society and nation. But, these days those who die in accidents or events that are nothing to do with the common interests are also declared martyrs. This trend must end.

Chadra Kant Dahal, former lawmaker

The value of martyrs has decreased as there is tendency to announce those, who died for other than political cause, as martyr. Our martyrs scarified their lives while fighting for democracy. They joined that the campaign for the restoration of democracy at the call of BP Koirala.

Khilanath Dahal, MMF general secretary

The martyrs had laid down their lives for freedom, justice and equality. It is high time the people pressed the political parties for focusing on the economic agenda in the new constitution. Over 3.5 million Nepalese youth are abroad and slaving away for the livelihood. Every day three corpses of them land in the country. Our discourse should focus on creating jobs for the youth. There is the need for investment in the fields of hydropower, infrastructures and tourism. We are rich in herbal plants and they should be processed for producing medicines. The rich, feudalists and elites have captured the power and resources.

Discussion Session

Keshav Bhattarai presented his working paper 'Democracy in crisis: A roadmap to its consolidation' in the first session that is chaired by Radhakath Jha. Nepali Congress youth leader Narayan Koirala commented on it.

The gist of Bhattarai's paper

Since democracy is a system that represents the people's respect, dignity, freedom and sovereignty, it is itself an end. There is no another effective political system better than democracy to transform the people's individual and collective capability, courage and huge force emanating from their wise consciousness into the capital of collective progress and prosperity, peace and unity. This is a reason why every Nepali strongly yearns for democracy for a long time.

Nepal was unified seven years before the US was declared independence in 1776 and 10 years before the French Revolution happened. Napoleon introduced the uniformed civil code for Europe in 1804 but Jayasthiti Malla and Ram Shah had issued similar legal code 400 and 300 years ago respectively. The tradition of appointing the individuals, liked by the people, as the key government officers by soliciting people's opinions visiting door to door was already in practice some 240 years ago. The early years of Lichchhavi, Malla and Shah Rules offered the pictures of prosperity that Nepal earned due to its effective rule of law. It has everything.

Despite all this cherished history of independence and democracy, our democracy rings hollow. We are rich in history, culture, nature, resources, topography and climate but the country has been unable to lay the basic foundation of rule of law more than 65 years after it adopted the modern governance system. When the nation does not run as per constitution and law, the talks of democracy, civil rights and good governance merely turn into a futile imagination. The system in which an individual is above the law is dictatorial one. The system in which no one remains above law is democratic. Sadly, at the moment, the laws are serving those who exercise power or are in power. This condition amply denotes we have no democracy or Loktantra or republic at all.

Some bitter facts are here: 1. Democracy is weak and sick even in big and powerful nations such as the US and European nations. 2. The abuse of powers and high spending kill democracy itself. 3. Powerful pressure and interest groups weaken the states. 4. Democracy is groaning under the weight of big money. 5. There is little democracy and more instability and anarchy. 6. Faith, pride and identity are disappearing while anarchy and impunity are becoming the norms. 7. The state organs are becoming meaningless, powerless and irrelevant.

The political parties are not working to rekindle people's faith and confidence. They seek devotion and loyalty from the people but are failing to prove their commitment and loyalty to the people.

We should do the following things:

a. We have to put governance system in place first to maintain good governance.
b. It is imperative to have strong culture of abiding by the rule of law in order to implement it effectively.
c. Adopting the form of government that guarantees political stability and good governance. (directly elected executive president and parliament can serve this purpose)
d. Strengthening the democratic institutions- the press, civil society, constitutional bodies and independent judiciary.
e. Pursuing the economic model that ensures ecological security.

Until democracy becomes the part of humanity's faith and culture, its success cannot be guaranteed. For this, the state, government and the political parties have to develop a regular and scientific system to solicit the opinions of people on their decisions and reform and rectify them accordingly. Good exercises of democracy can be embraced from anywhere but we should develop democracy according to our own context and culture. Success and failure of democracy largely hinges on the vision, image, leadership ability, character and conduct of the leaders.

Koirala's comments

Nepal is in the strategic location. Incompetent leadership and the politics of negation are pushing the country towards anarchy. Democracy cannot flourish in the absence of an alternative democratic party. In Nepal, it is not the parliamentary system itself but the politicians who failed it. It is wrong to blame the system for the incompetence of leaders. Many of our ideologies are exported ones. Secularism was inserted into the statute without due debates on it. Hidden factors are hindering the flourish of democracy. Democracy is not the dictatorship of leaders and parties. We cannot reach a desired destination on the basis of current roadmap. The disputed subjects need to be decided through a referendum.

Comments from the floor

There should be clarity as to what kind of socio-economic and political system that we want to install in the nation. We should also examine our responsibility for the moral lapses in the leaders. The country is visibly under threat from the move of slashing it into many ethnic states. Without money, it seems, the politics does not move an inch ahead. The election has enormously become an expensive affair. The candidates without a fat purse do not stand the chance of fighting or winning the election. The politics has lost its moral qualities. It is the leaders, who frame the laws, and it is the same leaders who run afoul of laws. Nepotism and favoritism has hindered the political process. There is the need for framing the policy in which the aspirations of all can be adjusted and accommodated. This sort of seminars and discussion should be held in the presence of politicians of all hues and stripes.

Day 2

Session one

Former lawmaker Hom Raj Dahal presented his working paper entitled 'the role of political parties in ensuring social justice' in the first session chaired by Dhundi Raj Shastri. DP Aryal and Nain Singh Mahar commented Dahal's paper. Likewise, senior journalist Yuvraj Gautam paper entitled 'the question of the responsibility of parties in democracy,' seeks to highlight the role of political parties to strengthen nationalism, democracy and culture. The paper dwells on the world history with special focus on eastern philosophy, culture and politics.

The gist of Dahal's paper

Dahal's paper's sheds light on the conceptual framework and the international theories and practices of social justice. The views of Marx, Durkheim and Weber on social justice have been well summed up. It informs about the new ideas of social security that evolved in new millennium, the condition of social justice in the UK, US and Israel, the UN provisions and the role of the Nepalese political parties in realizing it.

The concept of social justice came into existence with the evolution of welfare state. Following the World War II, an opinion that the government has to work for the social justice and services to the people came strongly. Particularly, the state is supposed to provide health, education, employment, residential and other personal services to the citizens. It is the responsibility of a welfare state to deliver goods and services to the people. The western society has put effective welfare system in place for particularly two reasons. Firstly, the social security policies aimed at minimizing the conflicts of industrial society and keeping it in a balance. Secondly, as per the Marxist viewpoint, the social welfare scheme is way to sustain the capitalistic society as the citizens, who take benefits from the social welfare scheme under capitalism, will also accept it. With the measures of social security, the government gets legitimacy to control and discipline the citizens.

Nepal's constitution had also adopted a number of constitutional provisions to evolve it into a robust welfare state. The interim statute has guaranteed the rights to health, education and jobs. For the senior citizens and widows and widowers, the government has arranged monthly allowances it is a pittance. Likewise, it grants scholarships to the Dalit students and formulated the policies to raise the living standards of the people from Carnal zone, an economic backwater. The major and minor parties in the CA have promised to implement social security and justice provisions but they have failed to live up to their commitments as they reach power. The government needs to bring youth policy immediately to ensure employment opportunities to them. Civil society and NGOs have done commendable job in the social security areas. The conscious citizens should nudge the state to implement the social security provisions spelt out in the interim constitution.

Aryal's comments

The parties should be recalibrated in a way that enables them to build a common position on the issues of public interests such as the hydropower and road construction. Nationalism is becoming weak. The nation has reached such a pass as the leaders have failed to catch the right path. The cadres in the oldest democratic party are not satisfied with the working style of the leaders. The intellectuals should also play their proactive role to deepen democracy.

Mahar's comments

Nepal is evolving into an amoral society- it is becoming more and more individualistic and sans esprit de corps- feelings of pride, care and support for each other, etc. that are shared by the members of a group. The people are guided by money, not by the democratic ideals. Even the educational curriculum has not included moral education. A mere word 'democracy' does not deliver anything. The state needs to fulfill the basic requirements of the people. It is necessary to bring all classes to the mainstream to ensure social justice for them. Politics is the master of all social sciences and it needs to be strong. One way to strengthen it is to promote moral education.

From the floor

A host of individuals, including Rabindra Nath Bhattarai, Hem Rai, Yuv Raj Gautam, Anita Gyawali, Kumar Joshi, Mukunda Koirala, Prakash Rai, Yogendra Dahal and Rodana Ghimire participated in the discussion. Their views are as follows: The debate should be to the point. Nationality is getting weak. Social justice needs to be applied as per the local context and reality of the country. The women folks are still discriminated and unable to enjoy males' support. To ensure social justice, the youth need to be granted employment from the state. Democratic culture is dwindling. It requires sacrifices. The south Asia is in the volatile conditions. Cross-border crimes, haphazardly constructed dams and trafficking of humans have posed a threat to its stability. The parties should work for national interests and values. When the NC introduced market economy in early 90s, the notion of social security and justice took a backseat. The families of martyrs are deprived of social justice. The state also gave a short shrift to them.

The gist of Gautam's paper

Without a minute study of history, the study of politics remains incomplete. During the Paleolithic and neo-paleolithic periods, the human used stone weapons to protect themselves. Later, the people became conscious that they needed organizations and institutes to protect their thoughts. The oriental scholars do not believe that the western society has taught all arts of politics. In his famous book, 'People and Parliament', former speaker of Indian Loksabha Dr Balram Jakhad writes that the term 'sansad' (parliament) has been mentioned in the Rig Veda. In one Vedic verse, it is said that the people's approval is necessary to ensure stability and order in the society.

With over 3,500-year old written history, Nepal has been always an independent and sovereign nation. It is one of the oldest nations on the earth. If the politicians cannot study the issues relating to the national interests, it will invite undesirable consequences to the nation. If they fail to concentrate on the questions of national interests by anlaysing the main policies of nation, they cannot pay heed of nationality, democracy and the burning problems of the people. It is irony that the Nepalese leaders are not sensitive about the national interests. The political parties used to blame the palace for their weakness, stubbornness and failures from 1990 to 2006. With the nation ushering in republican set-up, they are no longer in a position to pin blame on the monarchy for their incompetence. Some blame the foreign power centres for the irresponsible behaviours of the parties and their leaders. The parties are responsible for courting the foreign meddling one or another way. The political parties will not lose people's trust if they have become serious about the Mahakali Treaty, BIPPA agreement, the legal provisions granting the citizenship certificates to the hundreds of thousands of foreigners, the problems caused by the uncontrolled and unmanaged borders and the daily problems of the people.

After missing the self-imposed deadline of delivering the statute on January 22, 2015, the parties are all set to make another promise to give the state within four years. If they consider that there is no alternative to them, this will be a big stupidity. This is because if the parties become failure in democracy, there is possibility for the authoritarianism to rears its ugly head.

Comments from the floor

Manita Basnet posed a question: How can the nation get a statesman? She said that the people need to choose leaders according to their qualities and ability. Kumar Luintel said that national interests should be kept at the centre when it comes to taking vital decisions pertaining to the matters of sovereignty and national integrity.

In his concluding remarks, MMF general secretary Khilanath Dahal said that the state has not been able to pay due attention to the woes of the family members of martyrs. The citizens have not felt that they are given the social justice in the term of economic benefits and opportunities.

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