(Bimal Pratap Shah)

The Constituent Assembly made history by passing the long awaited ‘Constitution Bill’ with a two-thirds majority, followed by the President’s endorsement on Sunday. Many feel the constitution fails to address the aspirations of marginalized sections. But political parties have promised that their concerns will be urgently addressed. However, first, the country needs to work swiftly to adjust the current democratic system to the one suited for the Digital Age.

Democracy is the most advanced political system the world has seen, but its very foundation has shifted. And this is a good thing because the marvel of democracy is its flexibility to develop new institutions calibrated to the constantly evolving norms. There is an urgent need to attune Nepal’s political institutions to the new reality. Bluntly, if democracy is to be sustained, it has to be upgraded at all cost and immediately, as the expectations of the 21st century citizens have fundamentally changed.

In a true democratic society, responsible citizens are allowed to criticize the world they live in and to work towards the world they would like. In this regard, the internet is a force for democracy, a medium that can potentially bridge the increasing gap between the state and citizens. In the past, people have successfully used internet to disrupt regressive regimes working against people’s aspirations. Most of us still remember the inspirational images of the Arab Spring circulated in social media, helping activists garner wider support for their cause.

With the new constitution, Nepalis are again optimistic about the country’s future. There is new hope, but also a question. Will the next government institute much needed reforms in the country? I hope this is the last time elected officials vote on legislations without IT support. Even though the voting method was democratic, the tool of choice was primitive. Instead of banging on tables or shouting “yes” or “no” like kindergarten children, they could have at least installed internet-enabled touch devices and voted on issues in a civilized manner more suited for the Digital Age.

In the age of instant information, everything, including democracy will involve more technology. Till now, representative democracy has been the most preferred political system. In this system, citizens get to vote during election, but political institutions still hold legislative and executive power, meaning laws, policies, and decisions on public action are taken and implemented by representative institutions. In this type of democracy, the only way citizens can participate in governance is by casting ballots, getting party membership or standing for election. Honestly, representative democracy is in crisis because the number of people participating in elections is decreasing. Nepalis living on foreign soil have been so far excluded from national elections.

The answer is Democracy 2.0—internet-enabled participatory democracy. When it comes to involving citizens in governance, there are three levels of democracy: information, consultation, and active participation. At the information level, governments make information available through agency websites to promote informed citiznery. At the consultation level, the government establishes various web 2.0 tools like wikis, social networking sites, and forums to publicly discuss issues, deliberate, and inform decision making. Finally, citizens participate directly and partner with government in policy making using various innovative internet tools.

Many countries have started to use internet to promote participatory democracy. Finland, one of the most internet savvy countries in the world, recently calibrated their democracy to the recent times. They adopted ‘Open Ministry’, an online platform that lets citizen groups propose legislations to the Parliament. A law was passed in 2012 giving citizens’ proposals the same status as legislations proposed by a member of parliament, if at least 50,000 signatures can be collected within six months. The ‘Open Ministry’ platform is digital signature enabled, which means, Finns can sign petitions from any parts of the world connected to reliable internet.

Similarly, Estonia, another digitally advanced country, has taken participatory democracy to another level. Estonian citizens vote in elections and approve laws using internet-enabled smart phones. Estonia, in 2005, became the first country to hold nationwide elections using this method. And in 2007, the country was in the headlines again as the first to use Internet Voting (I-voting) in parliamentary elections. In this year’s election also some 30 percent participating voters cast their ballots online.

Time has provided Nepal with an opportunity to follow the path of Estonia and Finland to establish an internet-age democracy. The government has to foster participatory democracy that allows citizens to actively participate in governance. The best way forward would be to develop robust internet voting technologies to let Nepalis cast ballots from any part of the world. Furthermore, the same technology could be used to vote on legislations as well as deepen the democratic process by enhancing transparency, accessibility, inclusiveness, accountability, and openness.

The new Nepal cannot miss the opportunities offered by the internet to strengthen democracy by promoting citizens’ involvement in legislative process and in shaping public services. The technology is already here, the only thing lacking is political will to march towards Nepal 2.0.

The author has worked as a Project Management Consultant for ICT Development Project at the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers

(Source: The Republica daily, 23 Sept 2015)