From The Kathmandu Post (14 March, 2014)
It is make or break time for local government. If the leaders and Members of Parliament of the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML do not act immediately to announce the dates for local polls within the next couple of weeks, the window of opportunity for giving elected officials to the villages, municipalities and districts will be lost. If that happens, amidst the push-and-pull of constitution writing and consolidation of newly-defined federal structures, it is likely that the people will not get locally-elected representatives for another four-five years.
The commitment to holding local body elections by Spring 2014 was made by the four main political forces (the NC, UML, UPCN (Maoist) and Madhesbaadi parties) a year ago, at the time of the formation of the Khil Raj Regmi interim government. Added to the holding of national level Constituent Assembly polls in November 2013, local government elections would push Nepal energetically on the road to democratic consolidation and normalisation.
The absence of elected representatives in our district, municipal and village councils for 11 long years has created a void in government service delivery, retarded development programmes, promoted unprecedented corruption at the capillaries and affected the practice and evolution of democracy from the grassroots on up. Every aspect of life has been affected by the absence of accountable local governance—from the gouging of the Chure hills, to the urban chaos in Kathmandu Valley, the poor construction of district roads, the difficulty in managing inter-community fissures and the takeover of the public realm by private syndicates all over. The absence of elected local representatives has hurt the people incalculably.
The late Elinor Ostrom, who received the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics, built her main thesis on management of the commons after studying how Nepal’s mid-hill communities collaborated on the use of natural resources, from irrigation to woodlands. The community forestry movement of Nepal, which started towards the end of the Panchayat era, takes from this tradition of managing the commons. And one can say that the success of the local government, on the basis of the Local Self-Government Act of 1999, also derives from this energetic tradition at the grassroots.
While the ‘Panchayati Raj’ local government system of India has taken decades to take root, in Nepal, five years was enough for us to begin to evaluate for shortcomings. However, as per the national pastime of destroying what we create, the rug was pulled from under Nepal’s local government scheme. The Maoists, whose agenda was to control the population through commissars, saw local government officials as their primary enemy, terrorising them into submission or exile. The government of Sher Bahadur Deuba could have extended the life of local government by a year in the absence of elections but preferred to let it die in July 2002. This proved a bonanza for the Maoists, who spread countrywide in the resulting political vacuum.
The transitional period since 2006 was when the local governmental superstructure was undone completely. Cheating on their promise of peace and democracy, as enunciated in the 12-point agreement of November 2005, the Maoists were out to capture the state through alternative means. With Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal harbouring plans to emerge as a directly-elected president of a one-party state, his organisation was hardly friendly to the idea of local bodies. But a way had to be found to access the huge governmental outlay being directly sent to the local bodies, a positive legacy of the previous Congress and UML governments. The formula perfected was the ‘all-party mechanism’, where local politicos would divvy up the money being sent to the districts, municipalities and villages, in proportion to the win in the 2008 Constituent Assembly polls.
The all-party mechanism was a brazen call to corruption, with the Maoists making off with much of the hoard by cornering projects and programmes. The local-level Congress, UML and other party cadre may have received only the leavings but they too were compromised in the process. No one could have thought up a better formula to corrupt the base of the national political pyramid, at the level of the village and municipal wards.
The November elections, when the electorate put Nepal back on the democratic rails, also represented the people’s desire for local body elections as promised by the party leaders. Four months have elapsed since the elections, without the required alacrity being seen on the part of the NC and UML. The leaders all mouth the need for local polls but no one lifts a finger. The unexpected dissonance between the two large parties after the election results were announced also took up crucial time that should have been used for planning local elections .
The willpower of the NC and UML seems wanting, perhaps because their cadre see it now as their turn to make hay, with the Maoists sidelined. Also, there may be some thought among the leaders that constitution writing will be affected, with the UCPN (Maoist) and Madhesbadi leaders having turned against local polls following their drubbing in November. The latters’ standard line of excuse, repeated by Baburam Bhattarai earlier this week at Simra, is “not to do anything that will distract from the constitution making”. The Big Two are also wary of the possible reaction from the identity-politics flank, whose activists argue that local elections will affect the debate on federalism. They maintain that demarcation of the new federal provinces is the main topic before the CA, and holding local elections under the old formula and demarcations will be counter-productive.
The energy of the people was expended on the November elections and they do not have the mechanism at hand to move the political class on local polls. The momentum of the erstwhile federations of municipalities, VDCs and DDCs, meanwhile, is down after years of shouting in the wilderness. While they do speak for the local inhabitants of the High Himal, mid-hills and Tarai-Madhes plains, these federations have not been able to organise even one modest-sized rally in Kathmandu to voice their demand for elections.
On the face of it, the NC and UML are for local elections in the Spring. At the first meeting of his Cabinet a month ago, PM Sushil Koirala gave directives for the same. Deputy PM Prakash Man Singh, in charge of local development, says they must be held, as does the UML Parliamentary Party Chief KP Oli and Deputy PM and Home Minister Bamdev Gautam. In the meantime, it is said that a Common Minimum Programme draft of the two large parties has local elections on the agenda. None of this means a thing if the Cabinet will not fix a date.
Interim local government
On Thursday, Dahal and Mohan Baidya signaled a move towards party unification by signing a two-point agreement, one of which was a warning to the Congress and UML to desist from holding local polls. The Big Two must of course reject this move by non-democratic elements, one of whom did not even participate in the November polls, to entrap the people at the grassroots in an unaccountable, representation-less desert.
However, the Congress and UML must also work to convince those who genuinely believe that the local government elections will sabotage the federalist agenda. They must confirm that any change of boundary of villages or districts in the federal delimitation would lead to re-election in the affected constituencies. Another means of reassurance would be to adjust the title of the upcoming polls itself, as being for an ‘interim local government’ for the municipalities, villages and districts.
Another concern also needs to be addressed in relation to the Local Self-Government Act (1999), which does not contain provisions on inclusive representation as per the Interim Constitution. Because amendment of the Act would ensure postponement of local elections to far beyond Spring 2014, a practical response would be for the government to instruct the Election Commission to ensure that the inclusion strictures of the Interim Constitution are applied in the interim local government elections.