Chasing a mirageThe government has set May 14 as the date for local elections. However, it has remained short of unambiguously specifying whether it would hold elections for 719 local ‘level’ entities as envisaged by the recent report of the Local Level
The government has set May 14 as the date for local elections. However, it has remained short of unambiguously specifying whether it would hold elections for 719 local ‘level’ entities as envisaged by the recent report of the Local Level Restructuring Commission (LLRC), or for the pre-existing local ‘bodies’ (VDCs, municipalities and DDCs) that number over 3,400. Such deliberate ambiguity leaves room for speculation over the government’s true intentions.
Nevertheless, the government’s decision to announce the date for local polls is unquestionably a positive step. These elections have become an urgent necessity due to the the constitutional deadline for completing elections to all three levels of government. Local, provincial, and federal level elections are to be held by January 21, 2018. Adding more pressure is the fact that the country has failed to hold elections to the local bodies for almost two decades. That a 37-year old Nepali has never had the opportunity to exercise her right to vote to elect local representatives makes our democracy a farce.
The Election Commission’s reported preparedness to hold polls and the government’s repeated “commitment” towards it should be received with optimism; however, the general response has been quite different. The likelihood of the polls taking place on the proposed date is regarded by the electorates and agencies with a rather heavy air of suspicion. There are challenges on all fronts—constitutional, political and logistical—that could prevent even the local polls from being a success.
On the constitutional front, the prospect of holding local polls seems to hinge on the outcome of one particular constitution amendment bill. The bill proposes redrawing the boundaries of Province 4 and 5, among others. According to it, the hill districts in Province 5 would be integrated into Province 4, leaving the Tarai districts separate in Province 5. The acceptance of the bill, which entered into House deliberations on February 23, is dependent on the opposition parties. The fate of the bill remains uncertain.
The Madhesi Morcha, an alliance of the Tarai-Madhes-based parties, has been opposing the new constitution since its promulgation in September 2015. The Morcha is contending that even if Parliament passes the amendment bill, it will still not address their demands and the constitution will remain unacceptable to them. Given the failure of the government to assure the Morcha that the bill will pass, the latter has announced not only its refusal to participate in the polls (at any level), but also the possible withdrawal of its support to the government. The House arithmetic shows that the two-thirds majority required to pass the bill is unattainable until the opposition alliance—led by the main opposition party CPN-UML—agrees to vote for it. This possibility looks increasingly distant.
At the political level, all players are committing fouls and no referee is present to enforce the rules of the game. The government’s strategy of moving forward with the constitution amendment and election preparations “simultaneously” is more chicanery than commitment to both
processes. Perhaps the government is already convinced that everything would ultimately result in a zero-sum game—no amendment, no elections. The opposition alliance, with its vow to stop the amendment bill from being passed, is also against increasing the number of local units, which would possibly have placated the agitating Morcha. In fact, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is himself opposed to early and successful local polls, as that would entail the loss of his premiership according to his power-sharing agreement with Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba.
The only powerful politician who is pushing for polls is Deuba, not because of his sincerity to implement the constitution or consolidate democracy, but because Dahal is “obligated” to leave the prime ministerial berth to him after local polls take place. As mentioned above, the Madhesi Morcha has multi-layered demands. If the number of local units is proportionate to population density, only then will it be open to participating in the polls. Additionally, the Morcha insists that the main demand for two provinces in the Tarai-Madhes remains and must be fulfilled for Madhesis to feel integrated into the Nepali state.
The Indian stance is crucial due to its moral weight on the Madhesi agenda and has not fundamentally changed since the promulgation of the constitution. The Indian government maintains: “Elections are welcome, but should be able to take ‘all’ along the process.” Essentially, this means that elections cannot take place until the Madhesis are mollified.
Logistical management is perhaps the biggest challenge to holding local polls. The challenge would be greater if polls were to be held for the new local ‘levels’. The government was pressured to accept an incomplete report of the LLRC, which has given rise to a number of issues. The main problem lies with the insistence that, in accordance with the constitution, it is mandatory for the government to implement this report. For all practical purposes, the report should have been merely recommendatory.
The UML is insisting that local ‘level’ elections should be held instead of the
previous local ‘body’ elections, further impeding the goal of conducting the polls within a relatively short time frame. The new local entities are yet to be demarcated on the ground. There are protests and reservations in many areas against the proposed demarcations and possible headquarters. The type of administrative structure, mapping of immediately deliverable public services and suitable manning of these entities have not even been contemplated. Most importantly, electoral rolls need to be entirely reconciled according to the new jurisdictions.
Given the myriad challenges in reorganising the local ‘levels’ and making them functional politico-administrative units, local polls seem feasible at this moment only if they are held for local ‘bodies’. The government must clear the confusion over this issue. The sooner the better.
The wisest proposition would be to hold the elections for local ‘bodies’ and gradually transform them into local ‘levels’. The Madhesis appeared quite receptive to this proposal at one point, given that the number of representatives elected from the southern plains would be far larger than under the new proposition.
In a nutshell, without concerted political effort, the current atmosphere will not be conducive to holding local polls. The Nepali aspiration to elect a primary government interface may yet again prove to be a mere chase of a mirage.
Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst