Road to Fair Representation: To Be or Not to Be Proportional?

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Nepal is a great country of debates and arguments, and the country would have been in the leading edge of philosophy if only the debates were done with sufficient research and originality. Nepal’s history is awash with creative and philosophical thinking, which is evident in great texts like Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Vedas, as well as in the science, technology, art, and architecture that followed those texts. Just inspect Swayambhunath, Pashupatinath, and Changunarayan built two millennia ago that are still standing and in use, and you will be convinced. However, we are spending much time today in selecting among imported ideas than developing our own. The “mixed representation” versus “proportional representation” debate, which is tearing apart our psyche today, is an evidence of our mindset that has turned lethargic for some time.

An enormous amount of debate is required in this matter but most intellectual friends are busy parroting party lines. This is because we love to choose among what is presented by others than searching for the solution of our own. A debate is required not on whether to choose proportional representation but on how the proportionality could be designed to formulate better inclusion. A debate is required not on whether we need geographic representation but on how much local a sovereign unit of federation be made so that people participation in governance could be maximized.

Of course, the mixed system proposed in Nepal is superior to the old electoral system. But to say that one person carrying one party’s view that happened to pass-the-post first, would reflect the view of more than 100,000 people in his or her riding is so bitterly untrue. I cannot accept if someone says that my local MP represents my views because he comes from my riding. The reality is that, he represents his party’s view, not mine. To tell you the truth, my MP here in Canada happened to be a Defense Minister who went against the will of the people to push Canada into the Iraq War. But election was on its way and we soundly brought him down. However, the new MP from the opposition party was not only pro war himself but his entire party happened to be pro Iraq war, a super insult to our ego. Now, people like us have no representative from our riding in the parliament although we are not insignificant in numbers. Therefore, I say that the destination of a democratic society is not in the election but in the representation. Election is a means but not the end goal of a democracy. The supreme question in democracy is always “who represents me?”

The representation of the views of all people “equally” as aspired by a true democracy would certainly require that people of all regions must have a fair or equal say in how the country is governed. However, the architects of the Nepali version of the mixed system falsely thought that their method can represent both the geography and guaranteed space for all political parties. But my conscience is compelled to say that letting an MP from my riding who got 35% of the vote to represent the views of the rest 65% of us amounts to giving a majority status to a minority. It is about favoring a party that is largest by the plurality only, and is about belittling the democracy itself. And, to our amusement, this disease does not just plague Nepal but the entire world. Therefore, I cannot refrain from stressing that the first-past-the-post representatives, who are guaranteed to follow their own party’s lines, are not the true representatives of the ridings they claim to represent.

I would love to say that our destination is a full fledged democracy but what we have achieved so far in the world is to move from “indefinite autocracy” to “fixed-term autocracy”. Just to give you an example, the majority of population in Britain and almost all the people who voted for Tony Blair were against the Iraq War. However, Tony Blair took Britain to the war against the will of the majority of his people. Was democracy meant to have such a rule? Should an election amount to a license to become an autocrat for until the next election? Absolutely not! But the emissaries of the same Bush and Blair who flatly lied to have evidence of something that never existed to justify their end, are still busy teaching us democracy and we are busy licking their feet. Therefore, today’s democracy can also be called an “elected autocracy” as opposed to “unelected autocracy” that prevailed in the past.

Because systems governing the countries are not changed easily like shirts and pants, it is prudent for the people of Nepal to develop a real democracy that would stand the test of coming centuries. Let us do so much so that people of today’s industrialized countries come to Nepal to learn what democracy is all about rather than letting the Nepalese being wined and dined in perpetuity at Washington, Munich, and New Delhi for the sake of giving lessons of democracy, which are already outdated. Developing a better democracy, however, requires that we search the destiny on our own than choosing among the archaic solutions. Yet, we have been treated as if there can be no alternatives and we seem to think as if that is the only truth!

All the Nepalese should pause and think once. Neither the old system nor the proposed mixed system can give rise to a true democracy. Just think as a democrat. Do you want a system where one Prime Minister can treat you like rubbish for the next five years? Do you want a system which is centered on one person? Should you fall a victim of one person whom you thought would be a great leader by looking at his face and his speech but happened to be a sucker? Think as a communist. Do you want some super-communist or a super-capitalist residing in Singha Durbar to dictate what your local commune can do or don’t? Should not all communes be empowered to make their own decisions and evolve independently? Think as a citizen not belonging to any political party, which is by the way represents more than 90% of the population. Do you want one party, even if it happened to be the largest with 5% of the population as its members, to dictate the entire country for the next five years? Do you have a party of your own to fight in the election? Think as an individual and as a human. You will find that the central question of governance should be about empowering the people not the parties and party operatives. It is about providing instruments for making decisions that benefit all and not just some. It is about espousing ever newer thoughts, innovation, and harmony in the world. It is about breaking boundaries and building a prosperous future. However, we have been led to choose from among the products of the past that do not represent the future.

Democracy’s essence is preserved in a proportional system. Its opponents point out that it may lead to coalition or minority governments and unaddressed geographic concerns. Although I personally think that there in nothing wrong to have a situation that forces me to collaborate with others and moderate my views, the so called flaws are not the flaws of proportionality or that of the idea of democracy. They are the flaws of the structures that are supposed frame the “house of democracy”. But our democrat fiends knowingly love to forget the fact that in any country, most of the people do not belong to organized political parties. Therefore, even a fully proportional electoral system proposed today does not stand for a true form of democracy as the parties do not actually represent the majority of people. Forget about autocratic system, non-proportional, or the currently floated mixed system to represent the people.

For the democracy to be functional, a new model of democracy where people are empowered in their own local communities is required for addressing the issues of people participation in decision making. And, a country-wide proportional representation, with provision for constraining the proportionality to enshrine inclusion, is required for making the federal decisions. At the same time, the leader centric political practices of today have to be replaced with people centric practices.

This leads us to think that a massively federal system where the units of governments are almost the size of today’s local governments is sorely desired to make the possibility of people participation in governance a reality. Just making 3-5 or 12-14 provinces out of Nepal is not going to transfer the administrative capital for the people of Sarkuwa, Baglung to their village. It will transfer it from Kathmandu to Pokhara. But Pokhara is almost as unreachable to Dalit or poor toiling in the farm of Baglung as Kathmandu would be. The political power would come to the local people after being filtered down through a hierarchical chain of commands. But if we had a real democracy, the power was supposed to reside directly and constitutionally on the people and to stay with them unflinchingly.

But, possibly there are those supporters of the unitary system who would make a dozen economists stand against us and give a lecture on the economy of scale. They will say that you will not be able to build large enough economy to compete in the world economy when a unit of governance is small. Unfortunately, but in a true essence fortunately, Nepal is not and will not be a favorable place to manufacture Toyotas and Boeings for the world. I would say that our ancestors depended on trade that was done in the scale of kilos and grams and not in tones and mega tons. And that will remain the future of Nepal. Only those trades that will happen in the kilos, grams, milligrams and in weightlessness are going to be successful. Those hoping to trade in mega tons are going to terribly fail. The profitable global industries of tomorrow will be based on nanotechnology, biotechnology, particle physics, material science, medical science, genetics, telecommunication, and information technology.

Tools and open standards to make software, such as computers, operating systems, compilers, and languages will all be household commodities available cheaply or freely to all. Telecommunication will be the greatest infrastructure on which the largest number of goods and services will be carried over. Combined with open standards, it will allow distant people to form alliances and collaborate on complex projects thereby making the current notion of physical size of a self-governing unit redundant.

The economy of the past depended on hiding the knowledge and then mass manufacturing the goods cheaply at distant places and transporting them across the globe in energy hogging giant transporters for selling them. The economists who worshiped “economy of scale” are the heroes of this era. However, the days of General Motors, Toyota, and Boeing economy are numbered. Also numbered will be the days for selling Chinese ginger, garlic and pears in Canada. The future economy is going to invent and sell ideas over the weightless medium using telecommunication and the physical goods will be manufactured or grown near the consumers. The production and consumption of heavy goods will eventually be localized in the future economy. Nepal should, therefore, better organize itself to be prepared for this emerging world of the 21st century than being prepared to compete in the century that is behind us.

Although I propose to federate Nepal using the constituent units not many times larger than today’s local governments, the current system of setting boundaries for local governments are not futuristic. Whereas the rivers and the valleys are separating the people of today, the people of tomorrow will be connected or united by them as it will be easier to communicate and share resources among people of the mountains facing each other and sharing a common watershed than with the people on the other side of the mountain.

However, the most unfortunate reality of Nepal is that, knowingly or unknowingly, Maoists, who are labeled by other parties as undemocratic, seem to adhere to the most democratic of demands and other parties seem to do a “service to democracy” by compelling the Maoists to compromise on even the demands that are democratic. It appeared for a while that the other parties were almost succeeding to keep the monarchy, centralized state, non-proportional representation, and one candidate per riding election, all in the name of modern democracy. Maoists were also on the verge of betraying the people like other parties by watering-down their goals that were useful for establishing a democratic state.

Having said that, Maoists have not done proper justice to the people when proposing to create 12 to 14 states instead of letting those hundreds of districts they envision to be the state governments. To my view, bunching the districts to form a state amounts to taking away some of the local power from the people and giving it to some regional master. Why do we need a middleman between the local government and the central government? The middle power unnecessarily creates a hierarchy in governance and makes the local people subservient to a regional center. It is adding unnecessary cost to governance for the country in general.

By going back to their core demands, the Maoists have backtracked from their shady deals that they had entered earlier even though such backtracking is a bad thing to do in a legalist sense. They have regained some of their reputation that was lost when they veered off from their core demands that were good for democracy. May be what entered into their minds lately was some wisdom from Confucius, which says, “When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” So they have finally adjusted their action steps instead of adjusting their goals. Of course, I am assuming that the demand they say are theirs are actually so. And, if all Nepalese were awake, this adjustment in action step is a blessing in disguise for bringing a better democracy in Nepal not a better monarchy or a better “fixed-term autocracy”.

Many friends think that they are automatically on the side of democracy by virtue of siding with the deeds of the “mainstream parties” but I am convinced that they are unknowingly doing a disservice to democracy. But if all of us were to think together, we could overcome the violence and division prevailing today, and make Nepal a jewel of the world – a land of philosophy and governance of the future – a land of higher mountains and even higher thoughts – a land of the truest form of democracy.

(Dr Pramod Dhakal is a former faculty member of Tribhuvan University and holds a Ph D in electrical engineering. He is Executive Director of Canada Forum for Nepal (www.cffn.ca) and lives in Canada. He can be reached through Canada Forum for Nepal.)

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