The local bodies have been without elected office-bearers for a decade-and-a-half. This represents a signature failure of our political parties that were also the major stakeholders in the peace and constitution process that started with the signing of the 12-point understanding in 2005.
There can be no justification for the supposed torchbearers of democracy depriving people of access to their first point of contact with elected officials—and for so long. We in fact can’t imagine a functioning democracy without these grassroots-level elected offices that directly connect the government with its people. We therefore support the government decision to hold local level elections at the earliest feasible date.
According to the government, that date is sometime in November or December. This is a highly ambitious time-frame. The Election Commission has already said that it needs at least three months to prepare.
This means that the report of the high-level commission set up to determine the number and boundaries of local bodies should present its final report in the next two or three months. The commission wants at least five months. Moreover, the high-level commission will be hamstrung if there is no agreement on local elections among major political stakeholders.
Only two parties seem totally committed to local elections by November-December: CPN-UML, which leads the government, and RPP-Nepal, one of its small coalition partners. But UML’s main coalition partner, CPN (Maoist Center), has expressed its misgivings about local polls without first settling federal boundaries.
Nepali Congress, the biggest party in parliament, and the smaller Madheshi parties, are strongly opposed to local elections without such settlement. It isn’t hard to see that local elections will be impossible without the support of nearly two-thirds of the parliamentarians.
If the government pushes ahead with them nonetheless, it would further increase polarization in an already polarized polity. The legal ground will also be shaky since the new constitution’s provisions for local level polls are rather ambiguous. It says such elections shall be held based on election-related laws.
The opposition parties believe that this entails redrawing current demarcations, even at the local level. But UML argues that existing laws can be amended to elect new office-bearers at the local level without tinkering with current demarcations.
What UML needs to understand is that in a transitional polity like Nepal, elections are largely a political process. Broad political participation gives them legitimacy. This is why it is vital that at least the four major forces—Congress, UML, Maoists and Madheshi parties—own up such elections. If any of them is left out, the legitimacy of such elections will be questioned.
As some political parties will be excluded, it could also lead to violence. This is why, if the government wants to hold elections—local, provincial or federal—it must first garner broad political support. Such a political agreement will also give it some room to defer elections by a few months until there are relevant laws in place.
Again, as important as timely local elections are for Nepal, and as much as people want them, it would be foolish to rush them.