Ambika P Adhikari is an Urban Planner based in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Keshav Bhattarai is a Professor of Geography at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Missouri, USA.
Nonpartisan local elections are desirable for several reasons. The main ones being that the locally-elected leaders are directly implementing location-specific programs while being close to the residents of their jurisdictions.
Political parties are important in democracy. At the national level, they provide voters with competitive ideologies and options for macroeconomic plans, international relations, and offer diverse ideas about many larger issues that can help a country craft good policies for its people, and establish national identity.
However, the local governments are meant to implement locally-needed programs such as infrastructure development, maintenance, and provision of services and amenities. Nonpartisan elections generally help achieve these objectives more effectively and efficiently. Such elections can help to elect result-oriented leaders to implement programs that help improve people’s day-to-day lives. Such practice can also help to cultivate a culture of fairness while providing services to everyone regardless of their political affiliations. Tip O’Neill, a former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, famously popularized the concept “All politics is local”. It underscores how local mobilization is important not only in local, but in all politics.
Kathmandu, Dharan, Dhangadhi, and Janakpur were the major Nepali cities among the 12 jurisdictions where independent candidates won the local elections in 2022. These victories might have become possible as many local voters cared less about political ideologies, but wanted local action and success.
North American practices for local elections
A review of local election practices in the US and Canada reveals the popularity of a nonpartisan approach in the local elections. According to the National League of Cities, in the US in 2018, 44 out of 50 states elected local school boards by nonpartisan ballots, and most municipalities have favored nonpartisan ballots for mayoral and city council elections. According to Ballotpedia, a non-profit online encyclopedia of American politics and elections, “Only 16 of America's 100 largest cities hold partisan elections”.
Among the only few US cities conducting elections on a partisan basis include New York, Houston, and Philadelphia. With the population of almost nine million (2022), New York City is a big entity and is equal in size to many countries in the world. A partisan election works fine there as many policy issues involved there are intertwined with international events because of the stature of the city.
However, many large cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, Detroit, San Francisco, San Diego, and Dallas elect their city leaders on a non-partisan basis. Local governments are often best served when nonpartisan candidates are elected in offices. Political minorities also generally benefit from nonpartisan ballots. In contrast, “proponents of partisan elections argue that party labels help voters translate their values and preferred sets of policies into electoral outcomes.”But such concepts are better suited for national and state-level elections.
In many Canadian cities, too, candidates for municipal elections run as independent on a nonpartisan basis. For example, in Calgary’s municipal elections, most candidates run on a nonpartisan basis. Some big cities like Vancouver even form nonpartisan associations to support independent candidates.
In the US and Canada, any person can run on a party banner without being nominated by the party leadership. For positions such as the US Congress, Senate, President, and state governors, the registered party members vote in the primaries for the candidates running in their party’s name. The person who wins the primary election automatically becomes the party’s nominee for that position in the general election irrespective of the choices of the party’s central command. Thus, the party bosses cannot dictate who runs on behalf of the party. It is the people who choose their candidates from the primaries. One State in the US (Louisiana) does not hold primaries, and some states have open primaries which are not based on party lines. For the local elections, a prospective candidate needs to submit a certain number of voter signatures to be on the ballot.
Further, in the US, there is no restriction on who can become a member of a political party. Any eligible voter is free to register to be affiliated with any party of his/her choice. The political party machinery has no say on who obtains party membership, rather it is a personal choice of the voter.
Party supremacy in Nepal
Since the new constitution was promulgated in 2015, Nepal held its second local elections on 13 May, 2022 in 753 local units (six metropolitan cities, 11 sub-metropolitan cities, 276 municipalities and 460 rural municipalities). Almost all the candidates in the local elections were from Nepal’s major political parties. Only a handful of the candidates ran independently.
As a major upset to the established political parties, independent candidates in some key jurisdictions won mayoral elections challenging the dominance of political parties in local elections. A high profile example of this was the victory of the 32-year-old Balendra Shah, an engineer by profession and a rapper by repute, who ran as an independent candidate in Kathmandu. It was an expression of the desire of the people to elect a competent rather than a partisan candidate.
The established Nepali political parties have sometimes nominated inept political candidates in local elections. Such individuals were promoted by the parties as their representatives and were frequently elected when parties mobilized their resources and mass base. For example, Kathmandu’s mayor elected in 2017 is widely considered to be a failure. Very few local programs were accomplished during the mayor’s tenure. It shows that a candidate’s ability to connect with the community is often discarded when only party interest is seen as paramount.
Nonpartisan local elections are desirable for several reasons. The main ones being that the locally-elected leaders are directly implementing location-specific programs while being close to the residents of their jurisdictions. The leaders’ main job is to successfully plan and implement local developmental activities such as water supply, drainage, transportation, wastewater, land use, environmental management, and other infrastructure elements, and work to promote economic development. Local leaders work directly with the community – often on a one-on-one basis or in a small group situation. Partisan biases are not conducive for community development on such a scale.
As the local government must work directly with the constituents, a non-partisan system helps build cooperation among all elected leaders even when they keep their personal ideological preferences. If the municipal leaders are elected by the voters in a non-partisan manner, once elected, they are not inclined to form groups based on their party affiliation or party loyalty. But they work as a team to support local needs. As the goals of the local elected leaders is to provide basic services to the constituents, party affiliation and higher-level ideology may become a hindrance rather than an advantage to tackle local issues. However, at the federal and provincial levels, governments have to deal with international relations, defense, trade, transit policies, where political ideologies become relevant.
Benefits of nonpartisan local elections in Nepal
The national political parties in Nepal are still run in the old hierarchical system often controlled by the “old boys’ network”. Anyone running for election on a partisan basis needs to get a “ticket” from the party boss, often also known as the party’s “high command.” As Nepal has no primary elections like in the US, opportunities for any individual to run for an office is limited, as only the party bosses can nominate a candidate for the party.
Even in the elections for municipal and village development committee level, parties nominate their candidates. This system has been problematic in getting the best candidates who can lead the local government and deliver services to the people. Due to the combination of the inability of the mayor and deputy mayor and other elected individuals (Ward Chairs, similar to the Council Members in the US), there is often partisanship and lack of consensus to solve the immediate urban problems.
Many years ago in Nepal, one of the authors of this paper observed that an elected representative was unable to help lay a water supply pipe through the land of a farmer. The representative belonged to one party and the rival group including the farmer opposed his actions that would have provided drinking water for the entire neighborhood. This is an example of how rivalries in political ideology can undermine local needs.
The way forward
Like in many developed democracies, Nepal can benefit from nonpartisan election processes for local governments. Nepali people will likely obtain better services if the local elections are held in a nonpartisan manner to elect leaders that can deliver on the people’s day-to-day needs. Such a practice will minimize internal conflicts and support an effective local government that can efficiently respond to the people’s needs and aspirations.
The authors believe that nonpartisan local elections in Nepal will help form a team spirit and collaborative outlook in the elected leaders to solve the problems at hand.
(Ambika P Adhikari is an urban planner and educator affiliated with the City of Tempe in Arizona, USA. Keshav Bhattarai is Professor of Geography at the University of Central Missouri, USA. Opinions expressed are those of the authors.)