Parliamentary democracy in South Asia has stronger roots in India than in its neighbouring countries but, after phases of civil war and military dictatorship, democracy has returned to Nepal and Pakistan. Thomas Bärthlein argues that the citizens who have fought for it deserve a better stab at democracy than the last times round.
Just like in Pakistan, where elections signalled a new beginning a few weeks ago, in Nepal it is also the people, civil society and the media, which pushed for an end to the authoritarian ruler’s one-man show. In 2006, King Gyanendra was forced to step down; setting in motion a process, which eventually led to this week’s constituent assembly elections. The people have voted decisively for democracy and elections.
In both countries, political parties had been discredited. They had abused their stints in government during the 1990s and had besmirched the reputation of parliamentary democracy with bad governance, corruption and in-fighting.
No wonder then that the people turned to alternatives for their salvation -- militant insurgent movements on the one hand and authoritarian rulers with military backing, who promised simple, efficient solutions to all problems, on the other.
Both in Pakistan and in Nepal, it emerged that these were the wrong paths to follow. Authoritarian regimes incapacitate citizens, “disappear” some of them and only solve the problems of their countries superficially. Whilst in civil wars instigated by militant groups, it is usually the innocent civilian population which suffers most. Violence takes on a life of its own and bestialises society. Military solutions for social and political problems are usually not successful.
But now democracy in South Asia has another chance. On no account should things go the way they did before -- elections and parliaments are not enough -- they do not automatically solve all of a country’s problems.
Democracy comprises a political culture of tolerance, dialogue and compromise. Effective mechanisms need to be put in place for keeping government in check. The times when corrupt politicians could use government as a self-serving body with impunity have come to an end in South Asia too. Not least because the means of monitoring them have got stronger -- especially through the media.
But democracy also comprises the feeling of belonging and equality. Little wonder, if large parts of South Asian society feel discriminated against, that democracy has fallen into disrepute. Nepal is probably the country in South Asia with the most significant social discrepancies. Whole worlds lie between the ruling class of Kathmandu and the mountain villages. The most important challenge faced by the newly-elected parliamentarians is how to redress this balance.
The constituent assembly has given Nepal a new chance -- a chance to review past experiments with democracy and to learn from them and start anew. Such a chance doesn’t come by every day.