Why Nepal needs deliberative democracy

Deliberative democracy could strengthen federalism at grassroots level by bringing people really closer to the decision making.

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 5 min.

On January 8, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal said something very remarkable, something that should be taken note of even if his words could be easily interpreted as just rhetoric statements void of any meaning.

I will take the risk and I will give Mr Dahal the benefit of doubt here.

As reported by The Rising Nepal, the PM shared in a speech given to members of his own party, the Maoist Centre, that “people’s intervention is necessary in law making”.

It is not the first time that Mr Dahal comes up with such statements.

Last October, he had stated that “citizen’s direct oversight is essential to strengthen democracy”.

On the occasion of 16th Republic Day, in an interview given to RSS Chief Editor Yek Raj Pathak and Reporter Ramesh Lamsal, the PM said that “only an advanced democracy can be an alternative to democracy”.

Can it be possible that the Mr. Dahal is really into something that goes well beyond empty words?

Could it be possible that the leader of the government wants genuinely to try to promote something different in terms of participation, involvement and engagement of the people in the decision making?

As some of the readers might have realized by now, I am a big fan of deliberative democracy that in essence is about enabling citizens to decide.

It does not necessarily do away with the formal processes embedded with liberal democracy, essentially casting the ballot on periodic basis.

Both forms of democracy could co-live together, each complementing the other.

For me and many other supporters of deliberative democracy, there is no other way around. Democracy, as we know it and as we practice it, is in crisis. This is not any more a breaking news.

The Global State of Democracy 2023, The New Checks and Balances, published in November last year by International Idea, confirmed this trend.

“Across every region of the world, democracy has continued to contract, with declines in at least one indicator of democratic performance in half of the countries covered” explains the press release of the report.

Perhaps it would be instructive to go back to one of the most neglected of the Sustainable Development Goals, SDG 16, a goal that is often overshowed by more urgent and practical priorities like fighting climate change, combating famine, reducing inequalities.

Yet truly and literally implemented this goal can bring about, for better, profound changes in our societies, at least for those lucky enough living in democratic settings.

While SDG 16 is generally perceived as a goal focused on peace and justice and anti-corruption efforts, few zoom in and take note of some its indicators.

For example, let’s have a look at Indicator 16.6:“Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels”.

The following indicators are even more interesting. Indicator 16.7 builds on the previous one and builds on it: Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision making at all levels”.

What does it mean to implement these sub-goals? What will it take for a liberal and still emerging democracy like Nepal to follow up on them? We need realism, a pragmatic approach but also a vision, the same vision that, even if driven by rhetoric, PM Dahal has been, I would say, consistently, showing.

As I wrote before on this platform, we do not need, at least for now, to break the existing systems. Ideally embarking on the journey of transforming the country’s liberal democracy into a deliberative one would necessarily imply major changes into the constitutional charter.

But there are no existing examples in places like Europe where deliberative democracy has been pushed forward where you have to get rid of the current systems in order to promote and advance deliberation.

We are still at the infancy of practicing deliberative and more participative forms of deliberation.

What’s happening in those places is the fact that local communities, including local civic groups, often in partnerships with local governments, are trying deliberation on a pilot mode. In some cases, for example in Ireland, the central government also embraces it.

The case I want to make with this piece is that PM Dahal should truly embrace more participatory forms of democracy. He could, in partnership with local municipalities and provincial governments, enable a series of experimentations where citizens are consulted.

Consultations are a first, primordial form of involving people. If they are done in a systematic way, even if they are less empowering because at the end of the day, they are just “consultations”, they could provide impetus to better, more solid forms of decision making by the people.

Federalism was introduced and sold to the nation as a magic wand that would bring people closer to the decision-making process. It happens that this is only partially and, I would say, marginally true.

In a way, yes, people are closer to the decision making but, in reality, what is unfolding is that they might be closer, in a literal sense to those taking decisions but not to the decisions themselves. In short, federalism has not empowered people to have a bigger saying in the ways rules and policy making are forged and decided.

Here enters deliberative democracy that could strengthen federalism at grassroots level by bringing people really closer to the decision making. Let’s try to make it practical. Imagine a citizens’ assembly that works along the elected officials. Meeting on consistent basis and provided with adequate information, citizens could provide feedbacks, opinions, suggestions on the problems and challenges faced by them.

In a way such assemblies or forums could be the real “chamber of experts” that Nepal needs. The International Idea’ report highlights the role of the so called “countervailing institutions”: “The term goes beyond the traditional understanding of ‘checks and balances’ to encompass those governmental and non-governmental institutions, organizations and movements that check the aggrandizement of power and balance the distribution of power to ensure that decision makers regularly integrate popular priorities into policy”.

It continues: “Countervailing institutions include relatively new entities, such as human rights organizations and electoral management bodies, as well as civil society networks, popular movements and investigative journalists, which all play an irreplaceable role in ensuring democracy continues to be of and by the people”.

It does make real sense to strengthen such institutions. It’ paramount and it is essential but it is not going to be enough to save democracy around the world. That’s why we need a real discourse on how we can promote deliberative democracy.

PM Dahal could enable, facilitate such exercise and Nepal could become a trailblazer in the implementation of SDG 16.  What about a national summit on SDG 16, an event that could be central also to improve, enhance federalism in very practical, tangible ways?

Such initiative could prepare the ground for Napal to prepare itself and meaningfully attend the upcoming Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy that will happen in May in Romania.

PM Dahal is in Uganda for the Non-Aligned Nations Summit.

This could be a place where rather than talking irrelevant geopolitics contortions, the PM could focus on democracy and on the ways his own country, despite the challenges, is striving to implement it.

There will be plenty of people in the audience in the summit, including his host, President Museveni, that should really be remembered about the importance of democracy and the vitality of upholding human rights. On these two aspects, Nepal is a success story, though an imperfect one, and the world needs to know more about it.

Opinion expressed is personal.