Alliance for local polls raises spectre of the notorious ‘all-party mechanisms’The so-called all-party committees were a tool for the parties to share the spoils, and experts fear a repeat of the practice that will degenerate into kleptocracy.
When Nepal held local elections in 2017, they were first under the new constitution that restructured the country as a federal republic. The last elections, the first in 20 years, heralded a new beginning as they opened a new opportunity for local participation in government, a key step towards strengthening federalism.
The election of local representatives kick-started the devolution of power and resources to the local level, raising hopes of people having a stronger and bigger say in how their communities should be governed. The elections also meant the end of the notorious “all-party mechanisms” that controlled local resources and had become a tool for political parties to share the spoils at the cost of development and service delivery.
The first cycle of the local governments is about to be completed, with the country set to hold local elections on May 13.
Though some major parties had formed electoral alliances in 2017, they were kind of loose partnerships. This time, parties, especially in the ruling coalition, have made a formal alliance. The CPN-UML, the main opposition party, which boasted of sweeping polls on its own, too has joined hands with some fringe parties like the Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal, Nepal Pariwar Dal and the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party.
Experts and observers who have a low opinion of alliance politics, saying such a practice shrinks democratic space, now are also wondering if this could legitimise the infamous “all-party mechanisms.”
“Alliance politics is a revival of the all-party mechanisms. The only difference is that earlier it was handpicked; the upcoming elections will legitimise it through voting,” Rameshore Khanal, a former finance secretary, told the Post. “The sole motive of the coalition is to exploit and share the local resources among party leaders. This is unfortunate.”
As many as 35,221 local representatives—1,506 mayors, deputy, chairs and vice chairs as well as 33,715 ward office bearers—will be elected at 753 local units from the upcoming polls.
Four ruling coalition partners have divided seats among them in 17 major cities—six metropolitan cities and 11 sub-metropolitan cities. The lower committees of the parties have been asked to share seats at various levels as per the need and convenience.
The last local bodies that existed in the country was 20 years ago.
The then Sher Bahadur Deuba government in July 2002 dissolved the local councils elected in 1997.
The elections of the local bodies couldn’t happen until 2017 even though then King Gynendra Shah in 2006 had made a futile attempt. There were no local agencies to cater to the people.
After the second people’s movement that restored democracy, political parties agreed to form the so-called all-party mechanisms at Village Development Committee and District Development Committee levels, in what they argued, to give continuity to local governments.
The mechanisms became a platform for the parties to pocket resources set aside for development projects and service delivery.
After reports of rampant corruption, the government in January 2012 decided to scrap the local all-party mechanisms following directives from the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority.
The constitutional anti-graft body found that the budget meant for development of the villages and districts was being disbursed at the whims of leaders of the seven key parties of that time.
“The party leaders worked behind closed doors. There was no participation of the people. The budget would be released to consumer groups. Eventually the money would go where the party leaders wanted,” said Tika Datta Niraula, a former government secretary, who also worked as a local development officer in several districts, recalling those days. “Even though the mechanisms were scrapped, those were largely active until the elected representatives took over after the 2017 elections.”
Observers say, through alliance politics at the local level, the parties want to repeat the same scenario at least for the next five years. According to them, by sharing seats among themselves at the local level, parties have by and large made a deal that they will have unchecked control over resources.
“As someone who has worked as a government secretary I know how those mechanisms rendered the civil service ineffective and plundered the state coffers,” said Khanal. “I am afraid the country is going to see a repeat of the same all-party mechanism system.”
According to him, unlike at the provincial and federal levels, the constitution says all the members of the local executive, mayors and deputy mayors or chairperson or vice-chairperson, and ward chairpersons as well as members are directly elected.
So the coalition is not necessary for forming governments at the local level, he said.
Those who have followed local level politics say corruption is still rampant at the local level which could increase further when leaders from different parties start sharing the resources among themselves, thereby stalling development and service delivery.
According to them, the election of representatives through electoral alliances will create an arrangement for the parties to turn democracy into a kleptocracy.
“Different government reports show there has been rampant corruption at the local level which could proliferate if all the parties get to lead them in a consensus,” said Niraula.
While there are concerns about alliance partners exercising monopoly over local resources, political commentators say coalition politics will also shrink democratic space.
“Formation of the electoral alliance is against pluralism which also shrinks the political space,” Daman Nath Dhungana, a former Speaker and a civil society member, told the Post. “If the parties contest the elections by forming alliances, the voters will have a limited choice. They will have no option but to cast votes for the candidates imposed upon them by the parties.”
He said it is wrong for the political forces calling themselves national parties to form alliances even at the local level.
“A party calling itself a national party must contest elections across that nation. How can the Congress or any other party in the alliance call itself a national party when it doesn’t or cannot contest in even half of the seats on its own?” he said.