In his message to commemorate the International Day of Democracy on September 15, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called upon all “to use all our creativity to advance the mission of democracy education, and in particular, to those societies in transition that need it most”. The message stresses that “the story of democracy continues to be written by people who yearn for dignity and human rights, for an end to corruption, for a say in their future, for jobs, justice and a fair share of political power”. Democracy education was picked as the theme this year by recognizing that education is the fountainhead of long-term success of democracy.
Democracy was rare during the Cold War. Several countries moved from authoritarianism to a democratic system of governance in south-east Europe and Latin America towards the end of the twentieth century. Samuel P. Huntington called these transitions as the third wave of democracy. The world witnessed seismic political changes in the aftermath of the fall of Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The release of Nelson Mandela on February 11, 1990 led to the collapse of the apartheid regime. These events generated a steady wave of democratic movements across the world that engulfed several countries and committed them to protect fundamental political freedoms and civil liberties that were denied.
Representative institutions emerged to ensure free and fair elections, establish accountable governments and ensure separation of power to put checks on the unbridled powers of the executive. Even the African continent, considered to be the most deficit region for democracy, saw the number of democracies rising from three in 1989 to 23 in 2008.
THE NEPAL CONTEXT
Democracy has been an ‘on and off’ affair in Nepal, with more offs than ons. Despite entering a new phase of modernity after the popular revolution of 1950, the people of Nepal continue to suffer to this day in their attempt to institutionalize the gains made through their arduous struggles and immense sacrifices for democracy and human rights. They still struggle to put their country in the category of free, peaceful, stable, democratic, and prosperous nations.
It is unfortunate that the democratization process and de-democratizing it have run parallel to each other in Nepal. The wanton dismissal of the first ever democratically elected government in the history of Nepal under BP Koirala by the king reversed the democratic process, bringing back reactionary and regressive forces into prominence in 1960. The king saw authoritarianism as a measure of stability and as a way of completing development tasks of 100 years in just a decade. The concepts of basic democracy and guided democracy were borrowed to produce a facade of the party-less Panchayat democracy, which was nothing but arbitrary powers for the king. The lack of democratic infrastructure and banning of political parties stood in the way of establishing the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free media and other inclusive institutions based on democratic principles.
The restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1990, following the peaceful People’s Movement, paved the way for laying the foundations of representative institutions from center to village levels. When democracy was taking roots throughout the country, the Maoists launched an armed insurgency against nascent democratic structures of the state in 1996. After over a decade-long armed conflict that resulted in the loss of more than 17,000 lives and destruction of infrastructure, Maoists entered mainstream politics through the signing of the twelve point understanding in 2005 and Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006.
Six years on, Nepal continues to be in a protracted transitional phase. Party politics looks more conflict oriented than task oriented. Power centers are outside the influence of ordinary people. Politics of trust is on the wane. Governance is moving away from democracy. Worse still, the government’s vacillating commitment towards democracy has caused immense harm. In fact, democracy has been tainted by conflicting approaches that have led to rampant cynicism about politics and political leaders.
Our leadership needs to be uni-dimensionally engaged in concluding the twin tasks of peace and constitution drafting in an inclusive manner to address the most pressing developmental needs. Talks about democracy mean very little if they do not go beyond the periodic ritual of ballot boxes. Martin Luther King once remarked, “What good is it to have the right to sit at a lunch counter if you do not have anything to eat”.
The dishonesty of government leadership, distortions, and double standards must be overcome if our hard won democracy is to be saved. This calls for principled, pragmatic, coherent, and consistent commitments and actions in support of inclusive democracy and establishment of transparent and accountable institutions. Those who play with democracy to serve their interests should learn a lesson from the abolition of the 240-year-old institution of monarchy in 2008. Democracy is a great leveler.
The journey from armed conflict to peace process in Nepal came through dialogue and negotiations. Peace, democracy, human rights and development are not separate undertakings. They grow together. Democracy remains an essential ingredient for good governance, justice, and inclusive state structures. Hence, it is necessary to broaden national engagement and positive participation in democracy building.
Here, democracy education is important to make people aware about the dignity and worth of human beings and the equal rights of all in shaping the future. Education on democracy should begin right from school to sensitize the population about these aspects, inculcate democratic values and principles in the coming generation, and promote leadership. This will help in institutionalizing democratic gains, creating a vibrant civil society and an active yet responsible media, as well as contributing to socio-economic transformation within the democratic framework.
Earlier this month, the country recalled the dedication and contribution of BP Koirala and his outstanding leadership in a democratic nation building process during the most difficult times. His visionary words should guide the present leaders to lay a firm foundation of nationalism, democracy and development. Further, Nepal’s strategic location has acquired greater significance in the evolving global strategic outlook. At a time when external forces are seeking to widen their strategic space in different variations, and in the prime minister’s words ‘Nepal’s key lies elsewhere’, the geo-strategic sensitivity of the country needs to be fully comprehended and acted upon accordingly. Nobody gains if Nepal remains weak, disturbed, unstable, undemocratic and poor.
The author is a former ambassador of Nepal to the United Nations.