Currently, the Tibetan Diaspora is in the grip of election fever. The democratic system is being taken advantage, to the fullest I may add, by those vying for power (whether overtly or covertly, if you know what I mean).
There is also a parallel discussion, sometimes serious and at other times shallow, about the nature of Tibetan democracy. People have their own respective interpretation of how the democracy has to act. Oftentimes, western-centric standards are applied to judge the Tibetan system. Similarly, at the other end, age-old cultural and traditional norm are challenges to people in their need to think outside the box.
It is under this atmosphere that I would like to draw your attention to an article in the Bhutanese Newspaper Kuensel, Building democracy from below – The Bhutanese context by Tshering Chophel, which appeared on September 19, 2010. I thought the article touches on several aspects of the nature of democracy in Bhutan and the situation is similar in the Tibetan case at many levels.
The opening sentence will have a familiar ring to Tibetans. “The poor turn-out of candidates registering for the local government elections is not unexpected.”
However, the food for thought is in the second sentence that says, “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.”
In our own discussion on the nature of Tibetan democracy we may want to consider some of the issues raised here.
I am taking the liberty to repost the article here.
Building democracy from below – The Bhutanese context
PERSPECTIVES 19 September, 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.
By Tshering Chophel