The enthusiastic participation by people in the second round of local level election, six weeks after the first round, is no doubt, a good sign for democracy in Nepal. At the same time, the 74 per cent turnout is also going to test the country’s over-centralised politics and policy-making. Is the leadership in Kathmandu willing to cede space to the elected bodies at the bottom of the proposed three-tier system government?
Despite the local self-government legislation being a part of the statute since 1997 — the first-ever elections immediately followed — the practice of grass roots democracy was discouraged by the key political parties and their all-powerful central leaders. The elected local bodies were dismissed before these completed their term. An attempt by King Gyanendra, during his direct rule in early 2006, to hold elections to the local bodies was foiled by political parties, which boycotted the polls.
The major political parties that pushed a radical political agenda and almost monopolised power by working out a rotational leadership arrangement, have been reluctant to hold elections. Instead, they have preferred to run the local bodies with “hand-picked” nominees, giving them unfettered control of local development funds. These “nominees” were accountable only to leaders of the parties that nominated them, not to the electorate.
That elections to 744 local bodies in seven (proposed) provinces across the country have been phased out over six months — the third and last phase will take place in province No 2 on September 18 — indicate a lack of seriousness on the part of the major political parties, the government and the election commission. The ostensible reason for stretching the elections was it would allow leeway to convince Madhes-based parties that have boycotted the constitution to join the process.
The lack of physical and financial infrastructure for the local bodies — office buildings and funds — and the absence of provincial legislatures to define their roles and responsibilities are likely to create confusion and set the stage for a confrontation with the Centre. Elected members of the local bodies may not necessarily be servile like the “hand-picked” office bearers towards the central leaders.
The international community has responded positively to the conduct of local bodies poll. But will it strengthen democracy at the grass roots? Can it take the peace and political processes, which are inter-linked, to their logical conclusion?
The three major parties — the Nepali Congress and the CPN- Maoist Centre which together constitute the ruling coalition and the main opposition, the CPN-UML — insist that concluding the elections to the local bodies, seven provincial legislatures and federal parliament by January 21, 2018 will be confirmation that the constitution promulgated in September 2015 is here to stay. However, some of the Madhes-centric parties which rejected the constitution have refused to change their stance.
The erstwhile United Democratic Madhesi Front, now launched as the Rastriya Janata Party (RJP), feels let down since its key demands including liberal citizenship laws and enhanced representation in elected bodies in proportion to the Madhesi population have not been met. The RJP had made fulfillment of their demands through a constitutional amendment a precondition for joining the poll process. The RJP, which is in alliance with the Nepali Congress, is now considering withdrawal of support to the month-old Sher Bahadur Deuba government. It is also toying with the idea of forming an alliance with the CPN-UML, considered an anti-India party.
The RJP, clearly, is miffed that India suddenly reversed its view and asked its leadership to join the poll process. Participating in elections held under a constitution that they had boycotted through out would have been disastrous for the RJP. If the RJP chooses to withdraw support to the government, it may inject an element of uncertainty in the political process. A far more serious problem will be when the elected representatives of local bodies begin to defy central leaders and assert themselves.
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