After the electionsPolitical and bureaucratic actors need to hurry with preps for transition to federalism
The first stage of local elections has been held, marking a definite step towards the implementation of federalism. However, the Election Commission of Nepal has received much criticism for poor voter education resulting in many invalid votes and a slow pace of vote counting. The fact that the commission was able to conduct the polls at short notice has been forgotten.
If public enthusiasm can transform into frustration so fast, the days ahead when the administration and institutions will need to adapt to the federalisation process will be extremely challenging. It was known that transitioning from a unitary to a federal state would require the political, bureaucratic, and social power structures from the national to the subnational levels to be reorganised.
Transition management plan
Nepali citizens and the political and bureaucratic elites are yet to come up with a well thought out transition management plan. The UNDP undertook an extensive functional analysis for nine key sectors and prepared a menu of options for fiscal federalisation as early as 2015. While these studies faced the challenge of a dynamic political situation, they could still provide a strong technical basis for discussions at all levels for a validated roll out of new systems and structures.
A week before the elections, a Local Governance Bill was yet to be endorsed by Parliament. What was more worrisome was that the bill had been submitted only about two weeks before the polls were scheduled to be held. Immediately after the bill was submitted, Parliament was blocked by the opposition. While the Ministry of Law is set to fast track the bill through the House, it is still problematic because the laws governing local operations which were drafted without extensive consultation with the lower bodies will be endorsed by the central government.
Based on federal requirements, multiple laws are being made on devolution, apparently under the auspices of various relevant ministries including the Ministry of Finance on fiscal federalisation, Ministry of General Administration on public administration and the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development without clarity on coordination. The National Planning Commission apparently organised a series of discussions on planning without discussing the roles of various ministries. Such disparate initiatives may help the respective agencies deliver their budget. But the implementation of federalisation requires coordinated efforts and the absence of coordination at the centre may lead to chaos.
Most dominant trait
Procastination is the most dominant trait of Nepal’s public institutions. Our political leaders continue to fuel political bickering until a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ is reached whereupon a hasty political solution is sought to earn the ‘patience and quiescence’ of the public before the disquiet leads to a total breakdown of the situation. The political breakthroughs made since 2012 are adequate evidence of this habit—the overnight decision taken on integrating Maoist combatants into the Nepal Army in 2012, the promulgation of the constitution in 2015 and the declaration of local elections in 2017.
In terms of development and service delivery, delayed transfer of funds to local bodies and rushed spending of the development budget during the final fiscal quarter constitutes a major problem. While cramming everything in the last quarter gives low quality delivery, avoiding this freezes the budget. This happens year after year, notwithstanding the fact that Nepal has a timebound local level planning process. In this era of instant gratification, where forming and sharing opinions is as easy as pressing a button, images get created and destroyed within seconds. While in the past, news happened twice a day; now, it is constantly updated. With smartphones and digital access, the public has become more confident and comfortable to express opinions.
The reputation of our political and bureaucratic actors and perceptions about their poor performance dominate public opinion. Their follies and frailties are not forgotten. Notwithstanding the many benefits of digital access, its biggest drawback is opinion formation based on partisan information, thereby adding to socio-political divisions and creating more radical and opposing positions around issues of concern. Public offices and officials are now under constant scrutiny and pressure. Ironically, this is not encouraging them to be accountable and improve their performance.
A decade marked by political arguments and agreements, alternating phases of stability and instability, political bottlenecks and breakthroughs passed from the declaration of the Interim Constitution to the holding of local elections. We had adequate time to plan ahead and translate the plans into action. Over this period, there have been a few bright spots. Earlier this month, the World Bank revised Nepal’s economic growth forecast upward to 7.5 percent for this fiscal year; and as impossible as it may sound, load-shedding has ended. The judiciary has initiated a crusade against corruption and settled conflict-era cases. The first phase of local elections has been completed, and even though the people have largely voted the traditional parties to power, alternative new political parties have garnered a respectable number of votes, which means that there is a critical mass of people voting for change and accountability.
Vision and hardwork
Building on these achievements, it is critical for political and bureaucratic actors to make haste and outline a timebound plan for administrative and political unbundling of functions at the local level, eliminate possible overlapping, map out public administration requirements and lay down plans, predict opportunities and challenges in operationalising local governments and planning to manage contingencies, and validate the local governance law with the concerned public to garner support and ensure proper utilisation of power. This will help to establish political and bureaucratic performance and accountability.
We are running late, but if proper coordination is provided by the Prime Minister’s Office and a reasonable number of teams are tasked to reach out to the local level, coordinate, communicate and finalise the aforementioned issues, it is not unachievable. After all, the vision and hardwork of a team was able to end decades of load-shedding.
Karki is a freelance writer