All deals are localElectoral alliances will essentially make the voting process a formality in many places.
Nepal is holding municipal elections on May 13 to choose representatives for local governments. In the municipalities, 586 mayors and deputy mayors, and in the rural municipalities, 920 chairs and vice chairs will be elected. For the 6,743 wards, as many chairpersons and 33,715 office bearers will be elected. The voting will mark the end of the first electoral cycle since Nepal adopted a federal governance system. It has been a mixed bag of achievements, with grave concerns raised regarding transparency and accountability of the local governments. These were brought to fore during the Covid-19 crisis when some elected representatives were arrested on charges of embezzling relief funds and materials. Policy Entrepreneurs Inc research has shown that many local governments have been inefficient in their service delivery and procurement, and often engaged in embezzling the municipal budget and plundering of local natural resources.
Despite the challenges, many local governments have begun digitising the citizens’ charter, paying more attention to the needs of the elderly, disabled and children. Senior citizens now receive pensions at their doorsteps, and are even provided routine health care by some ward offices. Rural municipalities have prioritised upgrading local health posts and schools and establishing cold stores to aid local farmers. The expectations from the new representatives who will take over the office will understandably be heightened.
Inclusion as if it mattered
One of the bedrocks of Nepal’s constitution is the provision for an inclusive political representation through a mixed electoral system. As the political parties prepare to field their candidates, observers will be keenly looking at how inclusive they have been in terms of awarding tickets. In the last elections, the political parties failed to provide a sufficient number of running tickets to women, Dalits, Muslims and people from other marginalised communities. As a result, their representation at the top level of the municipal governments was much less than what the constitution had stipulated. For instance, the population of Dalits in Madhes and Lumbini provinces is close to 15 percent, but their representation at the top level of local governments in both provinces is less than 2 percent. Over 90 percent of the mayors across 753 local governments are men.
Political parties cannot undermine the constitutional provisions that they have pledged to uphold. There are leaders from marginalised groups like Dalits, Muslims, Tharus and other minority communities within every political party who may be qualified to run for office. The parties must trust their experience and leadership if they want to foster democracy at the grassroots. There are also many women leaders who have done exceedingly well in their deputy roles, and who now aspire to contest in the mayoral position. The attraction of resources and power at the disposal of local governments makes powerful leaders (mostly men) at the federal and provincial levels lobby for the running ticket, especially in large metropolitan cities and municipalities. This could once again undermine the chances of women to gain leadership positions.
While visiting local governments across different provinces over the past couple of months, it was evident that the political parties would struggle to manage the aspirations of powerful leaders against those of emerging leaders, including women and those from marginalised backgrounds. Goma Acharya, who is deputy mayor of Butwal Sub-Metropolitan City, says she will not contest in the same position once again. “It is like failing a class and repeating it,” she says. Another deputy mayor, Uma Thapa of Nepalgunj Sub-Metropolis, believes parties should consider the deputy mayor as a natural candidate instead of fielding a new person with no experience.
While many leaders are switching loyalties to rival parties to secure a running ticket, there are others who are reluctant to contest the polls due to lack of resources.
A 2018 research report published by Election Observation Committee Nepal, documenting campaign spending for all three levels of government, has confirmed that elections have become unaffordable for many aspiring candidates. The report states that Rs69.4 billion was spent in the 2017 local elections, of which more than Rs50 billion was spent by the candidates and their supporters. This means that each of the candidates for mayor and deputy mayor spent more than Rs1 million, which many cannot afford. Comparing the spending of the winning candidates against that of the runner-ups, the report concludes that the probability of winning the polls increases with an increase in the campaign expenditure.
Where the stars align
It seems the stars have to literally align for the local leaders to secure a running ticket. It is no longer enough to be honest, politically motivated and popular among the electorate. Policy Entrepreneurs Inc’s on-going research in 15 municipal governments shows that a candidate must be close to a powerful patron within the party, and have substantial wealth or needs to find a sponsor in order to secure a running ticket. But there is a new caveat here: The municipal seat in question must be allotted to the party by the alliance partners.
Political parties seem so desperate to win that they have struck an alliance, dividing up seats among themselves. This will essentially make the voting process a formality in many places. It will also make political representation more skewed, excluding women and marginalised communities from leadership positions across different municipalities in all provinces. No wonder there is seething discontent among local leaders of every political party.
Governance at the grassroots reflects the overall health of a political system and of the economy. Constitutionally, we have put a system in place that allows inclusive political representation along with checks and balances that ensure transparency and political accountability of the elected representatives. But for the system to function and deliver, the political parties must stop squandering the processes openly. A compromised candidacy is as bad as compromised elections, and the Election Commission should take note of this.