Not bad, not bad at allLocal governments fulfil many of the expected functions yet they continue to be undermined.
Remember when the then prime minister KP Sharma Oli declared provincial governments to be nothing more than subsidiary units of the federal government? His pronouncement was met with outrage by those who believed it to be yet another assault on the spirit of federalism by the first government of a federal Nepal. Even two of the chief ministers from his party spoke out in protest.
From his vantage, one can hardly blame the inimitable Oli for believing he was the true master of all he surveyed since six of the seven provinces were led by his men. Lest anyone argue that there were Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s men as well among them, one only has to recall one, the current speaker of the House of Representatives, Agni Sapkota, sprinting across the house floor to thank Oli after being elected to understand who wielded actual power in the erstwhile Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
Oli did not publicly vent his feelings about local governments. Still, with more than half of all local body positions filled by his party men and women, one can be pretty sure he would have been even less charitable about their place in the nation’s body politic. The irony is that the current government, which was supposed to deliver us from Oli’s whims, appears to think no better of locally elected representatives. Despite warnings from all quarters, including from those that championed its ascent to power, the five-party coalition appears hell-bent on creating a vacuum at the local level, all for the sake of their internal party dynamics.
Undermining the local
It is worth reminding that there have been only three local elections in the 31 years since the restoration of democracy in 1990. The promise of representation locally, whether through the decentralisation efforts of pre-2006 Nepal or post-2015 federalisation, remains to be achieved for the simple reason that they have not been around long enough to have much of an impact.
Indeed, even in the current context, local governments have not delivered to the extent desired. That was partly because of the high expectations engendered by a strong body of opinion that all would more or less be all right in terms of governance once local elections were to take place. Some tempering of that enthusiasm might have helped at the time since the strong rhetoric that local bodies are the panacea to all ills afflicting the country was far from the messy reality of politics.
The central government under Oli did not help the federalisation process either. First, it delayed the crafting of laws necessary for the local bodies to take charge of the 22 areas of exclusive jurisdiction granted by the constitution. And, then, found ways to retain more authority at the centre than would have been the intended spirit of the constitution.
Going by media reports, local governments did not endear themselves to the public either. The first news that came out of the newly established bodies was the splurge on new vehicles. Then came stories about collusion between local contractors and elected officials, who were often one and the same. Also common were disputes between mainly men municipal heads and especially women deputy heads, and between Dalit members and others. Of course, these were the negative stories, which by definition found wider circulation than the plenty of positive coverage of local government initiatives.
Politics is local
That local governments have been able to fulfil many of the expected functions has been revealed repeatedly through many studies—albeit with several caveats. Consider the Nepal National Governance Survey 2017/18 conducted by the Nepal Administrative Staff College. Among the questions asked by the survey was one regarding the confidence people have in the capacity of local governments. The findings showed that “Nepalis are generally confident that the new local governments will be able to implement various measures and provide opportunities and safeguards. Together, 84 percent of Nepalis say they are fully or partially confident that local governments will improve public services, address local development needs, and implement development plans. Similarly, 82 percent of people are fully or partially confident that local governments will improve social inclusion, safeguard citizen rights, and ensure the participation of local people in planning and development.”
Likewise, more than three-quarters of the respondents believed that having local representatives would improve Nepal’s governance system. This was even though a third believed that the issue of corruption is something even local governments would not be able to control. This survey was conducted over a period starting in December 2017 and until March 2018. In that sense, it provides a sort of baseline for people’s views on what local governments would be able to offer since they would have been in place for less than a year at the time of the survey.
To understand people’s perspectives on local governments more recently, we can look at another survey, A Survey of the Nepali People. Conducted three times over four years, this survey is more handy in understanding how perceptions may have changed over time. The 2020 report of A Survey of the Nepali People analyses data from all three waves of the survey—in 2017, 2018 and 2020—and is thus very useful for that reason.
Asked about the situation in general in the local area where they live and work most of the time, respondents continued to believe it was getting better, with those “citing improvements in their local area has continuously increased from 55.9% in 2017 to 62.8% in 2018, and 78.5% in 2020”. Asked for reasons for the perceived improvement, the factors mentioned were better roads and “social aspects” and access to electricity and education. “Relations with local government and authorities” saw improvement over the three years from 20.2 percent in 2017 and 17.7 percent in 2018 to 32.2 percent in 2020. Interestingly, the proportion of respondents who believed that state restructuring had led to increased capacity of local governments in service delivery went up substantially from 34.8 percent in 2017 to 58.6 percent in 2020.
Perhaps only to be expected, trust in the federal government remained at 63.7 percent (2017), 64.7 percent (2018) and 67.2 percent (2020) compared to municipal governments, which topped 80 percent in all three years. For all the worrisome reports in the media about what is going on at the local level, political leaders there continued to retain the trust of a significant proportion of the people—70.5 percent in 2017, 68.1 percent in 2018 and a whopping 80.9 percent in 2020.
Despite all this evidence on how things are slowly falling into place, it is almost criminal that any government would consider undercutting a process that is just beginning to transition from its baby steps. That all of this is being considered by the ruling parties only to ensure a better result for themselves only goes to prove that saying correct: no matter who you vote for, a politician always gets elected. Call that a cynical view, but that is the sad truth.