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Building democracy from below -- The Bhutanese context

September 24, 2010

Kuensel Online (Bhutan)
September 19, 2010

The poor turn-out of candidates registering for
the local government elections is not unexpected.
The reason could be found in the contextual
reality of our social and cultural milieu to
accommodate such new political openings, rather
than attributing it to mere lack of information
and awareness of the process with the citizenry.

Decentralisation and democracy is undeniably
credited for empowering local governments and
enabling citizens to productively and efficiently
handle development functions that are not usually
performed well by central government. It
strengthens local governments’ competitiveness
and enhances innovation that increases the
efficiency to act towards satisfaction of
citizens’ wishes of higher quality service
provision. This is possible, as the locally
elected leaders know their constituents better
than authorities at the national level; while at
the same time, physical proximity makes it easier
for citizens to hold local officials accountable for their performance.

This argument holds water for a political
liberalisation, the impetus for which ‘comes from
below’ –the people. The bottom-up clamour from
local governments, based on actual needs for
certain benefits and efficiency gains of public
service delivery, has greater impact than that
initiated as top-down central government
prerogative. Even if the clamour comes from
below, if the policy formulation and design is
made by the central government (without
involvement of ultimate beneficiaries, i.e.,
people at the grass-root level), the system
remains with its theoretical beauty extravagantly
nourished with hypothetical benefits without much impact on the ground.

The clamour from below means people’s ability to
not only pin-point the weakness, but also to be
in a position to identify best remedial measures
to meet social interests. It is an indication of
maturity of people’s civic consciousness and
social, economic or political readiness to
shoulder the responsibilities of governing themselves.

Democracy is essentially a consequence of an
authoritarian breakdown, fostered by social
movements and clamour from ethnic-based civil
organisations desiring for better local
governance. For some countries, democracy is
instigated by political pressure from other
centralised or rising regional parties; external
shocks or crises; influence of different
ideologies; and, other hidden agendas, such as
reducing social spending by devolving
responsibilities for social-sector-spending to
local governments, while not raising their fiscal base.

Bhutan’s democratic transition is a result of the
King’s voluntary devolution of power to the
citizens. It is ‘given’ rather than ‘demanded’ by
the people, without being pushed by any domestic
or external political compulsion for reforms.
Such top-down political liberalisation is
inspired for people’s interest and wellbeing, the
urge for which stemmed from the personal
initiative of the central authority. Democracy
came as a sequential step of series of political
transitions of a welfare state without authoritarian collapse.

Such step-by-step procedure is necessary to set
the ‘conditions’ to enable, facilitate and
promote democratic trends. Then the ‘agency role’
of actors and institutions must be instituted in
the forms of rules, norms or traditions and
concrete structures like parliament or political
parties. This must be positively complemented by
enabling socio-economic conditions, so that
politicians will not promise ‘jam today’ at the cost of ‘jam tomorrow’.

The rationale of this kind of political
trajectory is found in that national unity
outweighs other democratic phases. Certain level
of socio-economic development is prerequisite for
a sustainable democracy, for which reason some
critics say ‘democracy is a luxury that poor
countries can ill afford’. This wealth theory of
democracy was experienced in some of the East
Asian tigers like Taiwan and South Korea, where
democracy came later than national unity and economic development.

This is not to say that democracy cannot survive
in poor countries, as it proved for countries
like India. But certain development would
inculcate some civic education in people that
make them see themselves more as citizens than
just subjects, increasing the acceptance level
and demand for democracy. It will instil a
political culture with advanced attitudes,
beliefs and values that underlie an understanding
of a democracy’s technicalities.

Bhutan lacked this. Changes in political systems
hitherto were implemented within the
centrally-pushed framework, resulting in local
governments simply becoming godfather or mere
custodian of prescribed rules, but not the
legitimate source of change. Such dimensions of
democratic transition rather increase the local
governments’ dependency with little increase in
the autonomy, despite full devolution from the central government.

Implementation deficiencies in local governments
entail central government to still take the
driver’s seat, resulting in a kind of patrimonial
state. This has resulted in path-dependency, in
which the historical impetus and mode of
political changes tend to set today’s ‘event
chains’ that determining the fate of a democracy.
The disturbance in the ‘political equilibrium’
has given our people some kinds of an
‘organisational inertia’ making them resist
change and defend their previous positions. The
previous procedures have become too sanctified
and normative for any reorganisation.

This is when we need to properly test our new
model of political change with clear plans of
benefits. Perhaps, weak response in local
elections can take place as a result of abrupt
change in rules from the central government, such
as the ‘functional literacy’ required for those
running for the posts. We recall that, in the
past, the post of a gup was not limited for
somebody, who knew reading and writing. People
preferred their gup to be a village elderly
trusted by people in that he was knowledgeable in
terms of local context and had practical
experiences or exposure in addressing the local
issues. This is how functional literacy was defined previously.

Though qualification in formal education might go
well with the need of time, when practical skills
on accounting, development planning or public
administration have emerged as a requisite for
modern management, any ‘big-bang’ shots may not
work for a country-specific context in historical
and as well as political terms. Democracy cannot
be generalised and replicated uniformly as ideal
and one-size-fits all kind of political measures,
for it is not measured by whether it right or
wrong approach, but whether it is successful or not.

Our country is going through a
‘learning-by-doing’ phase, in which many things
are carried out in some kind of trial and error
experiment. Our decentralisation has not matured,
both for lack of capacity in local functionaries,
as well as limited resources with the central
government. When most of what is decentralised
are more of responsibilities than authority of
resources, we have rather overloaded local
functionaries with administrative burdens than
social benefits. Without providing equivalent
remuneration, improving election criteria by
requiring formal education will not attract the
literate lot. If we mean to attract better
qualified people to run the local governments, we
should create an environment compatible with what the literate lot would want.

Until such measures are in place, we will have
people, who are attracted for status or perks,
take the post of our parliamentary as well as
local governments. We will have people craving
for the sacred democratic posts, merely out of no
other choice to have a job. As a result, we will
come across issues that are beyond the teething problems of a new system.
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