Plan to amend law to delay local polls faces criticismParties should not create instability by misinterpreting constitutional provisions, leaders and experts say.
If it goes according to the plan agreed at the top level of the ruling alliance, the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led government is all set to defer local elections by eight to twelve months.
On Sunday, after consulting some “select” constitutional and legal experts, the Deuba government decided to amend the Local Level Elections Act in order to make it compatible with the constitution of Nepal.
If that happens, proposed local elections in April-May could be delayed. The main opposition CPN-UML, however, has sharply objected to the exercise to postpone local elections.
The UML has warned against any conspiracy to delay local polls, for which the Election Commission has proposed April-May.
Experts, leaders and former chief elections commissioners say delaying local elections in the interest of a handful of politicians will be tantamount to an assault on the rule of law.
The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and the CPN (Unified Socialist), the two coalition partners in the Sher Bahadur Deuba government, are against holding local polls in April-May. Maoist Centre chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal has even proposed federal election at that time by dissolving the House of Representatives, an idea CPN (Unified Socialist) chair Madhav Nepal also has seconded.
Deuba himself does not seem to be averse to the proposal. Some leaders within his Nepali Congress, however, say the prime minister, who is also the party president, has come under the influence of Dahal and Nepal.
“There is no reason for Deuba to postpone the local elections as the party is in a comfortable position,” said a Congress office bearer. “It looks like our party president has been influenced by both Dahal and Nepal.”
The current alliance led by Deuba stands on fragile ground. Both Dahal and Nepal have been pushing Deuba to continue the alliance during elections also, including the parliamentary polls.
On Monday, some leaders of the Shekhar Koirala faction of the Nepali Congress held a virtual meeting where they concluded that Deuba is working in an unilateral way, undermining the party and office bearers and it would be suicidal for the party if elections are postponed.
Many of us expressed serious concerns about Deuba’s working style as he is only consulting with some party leaders close to him and alliance partners, the office bearer said, and Nepali Congress should contest the elections independently and should not form any pre-elections alliance.
Insiders say Deuba is under pressure to tread carefully, as he fears Dahal could switch sides to join hands with the UML in the name of forming a “broader left alliance.”
He has had his fingers burnt by an alliance back in 2017 as it did not work out well for him after Dahal joined hands with UML chair KP Sharma Oli after fighting the first phase of local elections under an understanding with the Congress.
Nepal held local elections in 2017 in three phases—on May 14, June 28 and September 18. Parliamentary and provincial elections were held on November 26 and December 7, 2017.
As per the election laws, there should be new local representatives by May 20 this year.
Some ruling alliance leaders, however, are citing a constitutional provision that talks about electing municipal and village assemblies for which there is a leeway of six months.
“There have been talks about deferring local elections by eight to twelve months, but this won’t be in the interest of the Nepali Congress. Any proposal to postpone local elections has not been discussed inside the party either,” said the Congress office bearer. “So it is the prime minister who should answer. Our position is clear…local polls must be held on the scheduled date(s).”
Former chief election commissioner Surya Prasad Shrestha said that since local elections were held in May 2017, now polls to elect new representatives should be held, in principle, by May this year.
“I do not see any reason—nor any objective—to postpone local elections,” he said.
Shrestha pointed out a fundamental flaw.
“Unless the Election Commission is made strong and empowered, not only in letters but also in spirit, political parties get a chance to exploit loopholes,” said Shrestha. “Second, as per the constitutional mandate, it is the Election Commission that should ensure elections on time.”
Most importantly, according to Shrestha, the ruling party or parties should facilitate timely elections instead of creating instability by misinterpreting the constitutional provisions.
“The constitution has clearly laid down that there should not be a vacuum at the local level and there’s a reason for this,” said Shrestha. “It’s the duty of the political parties that wrote the constitution to strengthen the top law of the country they promulgated. A constitution is an evolving process itself and politicians should let it evolve and become stronger instead of stifling it.”
The ruling alliance, however, has argued that when any inconsistency is seen in provisions of the constitution and laws, the former prevails.
“To remove the contradictions and ambiguities, we have decided to amend the laws to make them compatible with the constitution,” said Gyanendra Bahadur Karki, minister for communications and information technology. “There clearly are contradictions in Article 225 of the constitution and Section 3 of the Local Level Election Act.”
As per Article 225 of the constitution, the term of a village assembly and municipal assembly shall be of five years from the date of election. Another village assembly and municipal assembly shall be elected no later than six months of the expiration of such a term, the constitutional provision says.
Similarly, Article 220 (6) of the constitution states that the term of office of the chief, deputy chief and member of the district coordination committee shall be five years after the date of being elected. And, Article 215 (6) of the constitution states that the term of office of the chairperson, vice-chairperson, ward chairperson and member shall be five years after the date of being elected.
Section 3 of Local Level Election Act, however, says elections to the office bearers of the local bodies should be completed two month before the term and mandate of the local bodies expire. This means, the Election Commission should hold elections for such members by March 19. Since the law does not envision various phases of election and counts the date from the first phase of polls, which took place on May 14, 2017, this may mean those elected from June and September phases of elections would not be able to complete their five-year term.
The main opposition has vehemently opposed the ruling alliance’s plan to delay local level elections.
“How can the government amend the Act?” said Subhas Nembang, UML’s deputy parliamentary party leader. “The government has taken no initiatives to facilitate House proceedings.”
The UML has been obstructing the House accusing Speaker Agni Sapkota of foul play. It, however, has been saying the government should play a constructive role.
“The plan to amend the act to delay local polls stems from some conspiracy,” said Nembang. “The current ruling alliance is afraid of the UML because the coalition partners are well aware of the fact that our party is strong. The present alliance is trying to repeat the history when the country could not hold local elections for two decades.”
On Monday, UML Secretary General Shankar Pokhrel wrote on Facebook that it is Maoist chair Dahal who is instigating Deuba to postpone local elections.
“The government is trying to avoid elections and this time Deuba has become a pawn of Dahal,” Pokhrel wrote. “It looks like they are going to repeat 2002.”
In 2002, when the Maoist insurgency was at its peak, Deuba had dissolved the House and called elections. But he failed, ultimately getting the boot from then king Gyanendra.
“The country plunged into a crisis. At that time, it was Deuba and Gyaendra; this time it looks like the Deuba-Dahal combination may throw the country into yet another cycle of crisis,” wrote Pokhrel on Facebook.
A Central Committee member of the Nepali Congress, however, said the government and ruling alliance are considering all elections together in view of the time it takes and the money that is required. And there is the Covid-19 pandemic, according to him.
“But it’s true that it’s the Maoist chair Dahal who is pushing for delaying local elections and holding federal elections in April-May,” said the leader.