Local politics, national habitsIf only a small fraction of those elected manage to shine, local elections will have been a success
It was a disturbing piece of news, although not altogether unexpected in retrospect. As reported in a rather shoddily written story on the news portal, Onlinekhabar, it appears that a couple of newly elected chairpersons from two rural municipalities had called on the secretary at the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development (MoFALD). They had travelled to Kathmandu in vehicles hired by their respective municipalities for the neat sum of Rs100,000 per month. Apparently, the Chief District Officer of the district, which was not identified, had told the municipalities to hire the vehicles for use by the Returning Officer during the elections. Those instructions had been duly followed, and the story was about the secretary ruing the extent of control district administrations continue to enjoy over local bodies.
Since we are now moving in uncharted territory with federalism being implemented along with, in principle, highly empowered institutions at the grassroots, and also since there are no established conventions or precedents to guide the new arrangements, tussles between the local government and civil servants are going to be highly likely, as is the possibility of similar tug-of-wars between the local and central governments. But equilibrium will be reached over time, and it has to be in favour of those we elected.
What was interesting in the story cited though is that after the elections, the new municipal bosses had retained the vehicles for their own use, presumably both official and personal. When the MoFALD secretary asked them to release the vehicles, the response he got said it all: ‘You seem to have double standards. It was all right for a bureaucrat to use the vehicle but you object to the people’s representative doing the same.’
In other words, at least two of our representatives appear to believe that the point of the election was to give them carte blanche precisely of the sort that it was supposed to control.
Rot at the bottom
It is well known that even after the dissolution of the All-Party Mechanisms (APMs) in 2012, they continued to function informally. That was primarily because it would be near impossible for a mere government functionary to drive the agenda of DDCs, VDCs or municipalities without political backing. In return, what we ended up with was seamless collusion among the political actors and apportionment of public resources among those that had any kind of say in the local bodies. Not that all of that was corruption, but with everyone’s hand sullied, there was no one demanding accountability from anyone.
A UNDP-funded assessment from 2009 made clear where the problem lies: ‘The limited transparency and accountability in the planning and implementation of VDC projects is a serious concern to village level beneficiaries and other stakeholders. Information on expenditure is often lacking and audit findings are not made public.’ That such were the findings of a study commissioned by the agency implementing the Local Government and Community Development Programme (LGCDP) is telling. The report’s inescapable conclusion was that ‘[t]he absence of elected local bodies has led to the emergence of unaccountable political forces in local government’.
A report by the Carter Center two years later showed how the problem had worsened: ‘Political parties are prominent actors in local bodies, including in bodies in which they have no formal role such as users’ groups and school management committees. In addition to the laws and regulations that govern party representation in local bodies, local party branches themselves often abide by informal norms in determining their relations and relative influence. While in some cases this involvement may promote accountable and informed decision-making, many people interviewed for this report expressed concerns that party interests and representation were being prioritized over public participation in local development and school management, and accusations of outright corruption were not uncommon…[N]umerous interlocutors suggested that holding local government elections would be an important step in ensuring more robust accountability of local bodies to citizens.’
Common to almost all such publications was the advisability of local elections to control the rot that had set in at the local level. It took much longer than anticipated for the elections to be finally held, but it is not going to be easy for the same individuals who had had a free run for years though formal and informal APMs to suddenly turn accountable to the people. Local elections are but one step towards implementing democracy in Nepal. But, notwithstanding all expectations, elected representatives in place at the lower levels cannot be the be-all and end-all. The attitude of the chairpersons mentioned earlier is symptomatic of the immense challenges facing democratic governance in the country.
Not many would disagree with the following observation from a 2012 report on local governance by The Asia Foundation. ‘A core contributor to the degeneration of governance practices and the increased corruption at the local level is the manner in which politics is conducted in Nepal. The organizational basis of political parties, particularly at the local level, is not ideology, but political economy. Patronage networks and constituencies must be constantly serviced to maintain the size and influence of political parties. This requires money, strong-arming abilities and the ability to project power and influence. As long as these requirements remain the mainstay of local politics, political actors will find a way to abuse the system and survive.’ Its definitive conclusion is: ‘While reforming local governance matters, reforming political parties should get greater policy attention in order to improve local governance.’
Despite occasional calls over the years, the reform of political parties, particularly in terms of how their finances are structured, is a conversation that is yet to begin in earnest. Yet, the burden of delivering good governance now hangs heavy over our newly minted representatives. Perhaps tempering expectations somewhat is a way to avoid future disillusionment.
While discussing politics, people all over the world like to knowingly or otherwise paraphrase Bernard Shaw’s comment that politics is the last resort of scoundrels. Lenin had chimed in with his very practical take on politics: ‘There are no morals in politics; there is only expedience. A scoundrel may be of use to us just because he is a scoundrel.’
There is no point giving in to pessimism by dismissing all politicians as scoundrels, since not only are they the ones who have the greatest impact on our lives, but there are also a good many of them who are taken up, in Vaclav Havel’s words, ‘the art of the impossible’, out of genuine commitment to the country. Having the seven hundred and whatever-number-we-finally-decide-on local governments in place increases the chances of more such individuals proving themselves and serving as beacons of hope for people desperate for change. If only a fraction of all those elected manage to shine out, the local elections will have been a success. I, for one, do not expect more.