Local elections in May
It’s not normal for a functioning democracy to go without local elections for nearly two decades. But that is exactly what happened in Nepal, as the country came to be held hostage to the protracted constitutional crisis. The last local level elections were held way back in 1997. The tenure of elected local bodies expired in 2002. By this time, King Gyanendra had already started to assume absolute powers as he was supposedly unhappy with the democratic government’s handling of the Maoist insurgency. His active rule would last, on and off, till the second Jana Andolan in 2006. With democratic forces sidelined, there was no question of holding local elections before 2006. Then, in that year, monarchy was overthrown and in 2008 the first Constituent Assembly elections were held.
The CA was supposed to draft a new constitution within two years; but despite repeated term extensions the first CA got dissolved in 2012 without the constitution. The political class at this time was so occupied with mainstreaming the warring Maoists and drafting the constitution that the vital issue of local elections was put on the backburner.
The two years following the second CA elections in 2013 were also spent debating the new constitution, the task getting the much-needed urgency in the wake of the calamitous 2015 earthquakes. Then, finally, on September 20th, 2015, the country got the much-awaited constitution.
But the new constitution was dragged into controversy right from the start, culminating in the five months of border blockade. For all these reasons they were unable to hold local elections at any point in the past two decades, our major party leaders repeatedly tell us. But this is only part of the story. The long delay over the constitution was, at least in part, the result of our leaders’ seemingly insatiable hunger for power.
They had apparently learned nothing from the disastrous consequences of their power-centric politics of 1990s. This is why it came to be widely believed that the reason political parties were delaying local polls was that the current arrangement of ‘division of spoils’ at the local level suited them fine. With no one to monitor the activities of unelected (and unaccountable) local political functionaries, year after year billions of rupees meant for local development simply disappeared.
This is why the government’s declaration on Monday that local elections would be held on May 14 was greeted with a big sigh of relief by most Nepalis. Many of them had given up any hope of local elections anytime soon. Expectedly, Madheshi parties were livid and announced a slew of protest programs against the government announcement that came before amending the constitution to their liking. But we see no reason why preparations for local elections and the task of amending the constitution to incorporate at least some Madheshi demands can’t go hand in hand. But even if some issues can’t be resolved immediately, the political parties again have no alternative to
going to the people with their agenda; the Madheshi parties in particular would do well to realize this. But the big parties also have the responsibility of adequately informing common Madheshis of the importance of timely local elections and of assuring them that at least the three big parties are committed to safeguarding the rights of common Madheshis. If they make a genuine effort to reach out to Madheshi people and the Madheshi political parties, their gesture will be reciprocated. The announcement of local elections has given people new hope.
Political parties will now have to carefully nurture this hope and try to bolster people’s faltering trust in elected government.