We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

NEPAL: Calls for Participatory Democracy

This very insightful article reveals the consequences that constituent assemblies within Nepal will have on that country and those around it. The success of democratic participation in Nepal would provide inspiration to other South Asian countries where ethnic representation and dissenting views have been oppressed. This article shows the way that diverse people are connected in the struggle for a voice in the governing processes around the world and that in this struggle we are all connected by inspiration and hope for the future. -Editor

Nepal’s Democracy Facing Acid Test

In a comparative perspective, the democratic process in Nepal could be considered as taking an ideal course. Following years of bloody rebellion and internal dissidence a widely inclusive political process is finally taking hold in the country and the initial steps geared at framing a new constitution are being taken through the conduct of constitutional assembly polls.

This is as it should be, democratic opinion in South Asia is likely to proclaim, along with other sections which favour peaceful power transitions. Getting all dissidents, armed or otherwise, into a negotiatory or political process and integrating them into peaceful power transitions is the ideal path to conflict-resolution. This approach, democratic opinion the world over has come to accept and is widely looked upon as the civilized way of political problem-solving. All praise to Nepal for attempting what would seem to be the impossible for quite a few states in this region. Following India’s exemplary constituent assembly exercise decades ago which resulted in the installation of what may be described as South Asia’s most successful democracy, Nepal’s current effort at implementing a constituent assembly approach to bringing into being a new democratic order may be seen as another memorable moment in South Asia’s faltering democratic experience.

What about Sri Lanka’s 1972 Republican Constitution which had its birth in what is seen as a constituent assembly? This question is bound to be raised by some local sections but the problem with Sri Lanka’s constituent assembly process was that it did not meet the standard of inclusiveness on account of it lacking full Tamil participation. Consequently, the process opened itself to the charge of not sufficiently including significant sections of local opinion. If the Lankan process proved fully participatory, some of the convulsions in local politics would perhaps have never occurred. This, however, is a subject by itself and is beyond the scope of this commentary.

Right now, it is Nepal which is in the limelight and very rightly so for the bold steps taken by it to usher in a truly participatory democracy. The path ahead could not be expected to be entirely trouble-free for this poverty-hit, socially-segmented state of South Asia but its republican birth pangs are bound to be highly instructive for the rest of the region, inclusive of, of course, Sri Lanka.

If Nepal’s Maoist rebels with demands of power-sharing were to be considered the sole poser for the somewhat politically conservative Nepali Congress-dominated government, Nepal’s lot could not be considered to be too arduous. For, the Maoist rebels have been both a prominent and convulsive player in politics whose concerns have finally won mention in the state’s plans for national reconstruction .The same could not be said of the country’s multitude of ‘ethnic’ groups, the majority of whom have been wilting in poverty and backwardness over the decades with hardly any voice or political representation. The depressed Madhesis who are now articulating some of their demands is only one such ‘ethnic’ group whose voice has gone unheard. Suffice it to know that the Nepali polity is segmented by tribal, caste and religious groups who have been languishing on the social margins from times immemorial. The fact that they are not identifying themselves with the Left or the Maoists is proof that ‘ethnicity’ is transcending class as a basis for the articulation of grievances. If this is so, the Left has to ask itself whether its mobilization efforts have failed. Is it sending out the correct appeals?

A general notion of the segmented nature of the Nepalese polity could be obtained by considering only its ‘ethnic’ and caste composition. In 2001 it was estimated, for example, that the dominant caste or the Caste Hill Hindu Elite Males (CHHEM) constituted 30.89% of Nepal’s population. The other main social groups and their corresponding percentages were as follows: Indigenous Nationalities: 36.31%, Dalits: 14.99%, Madhesis 16.59%, Muslims 4.27%. Thus far it has been the CHHEM which has proved the predominant socio-economic group – the section to wield most political power. The challenge before the constitution-makers would be to ensure that substantial power is enjoyed by all the social groups.

A principal demand of the Maoists has been the abolition of the Nepalese monarchy. While this demand is in keeping with republican ideals, a more vital task would be the sufficient empowerment of the country’s deprived sections. This is a principal responsibility of the Maoists, since their main power base has been the poor. The Maoists would need to champion their cause or enable their voices to be heard in the constitution-making forum.

A sticking point for the government is the Maoist demand that its fighters be absorbed into the state security forces. This poses a risk for the hitherto ruling conservative sections’ grip on power because the possibility of a future power grab by the Maoists would not be ruled out by them in the event of this absorption taking place. Accordingly, another challenge for the main political actors would be to not only share power but to bring into being the necessary constitutional checks and balances which would ensure the continuation of the agreed constitutional order.

There is still a long way to go before it could be declared that Nepal is on a safe course towards political normalization. However, it could not be denied that ground-breaking changes are afoot. Nepal’s endeavours in power-sharing and democratization would prove highly instructive from the point of view of the rest of South Asia.

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