Local Elections A Moment Of Truth For Voters
Ritu Raj Subedi
Today Nepal goes to the local polls in almost two decades. It is sure to pass another milestone on the long road to the robust grassroots democracy under the new federal setup. The poll marks the first significant step in implementing the new constitution promulgated in 2015 following over 7-year-long arduous work. Unlike the previous local polls, this one is going to transfer sweeping powers to the elected representatives. It is not just about revamping the overdue development works, but also about creating autonomous and independent local units restructured by combining different village development committees. Newly elected heads and deputy heads of local bodies will exercise a number of rights granted by the new national charter. And this naturally calls for taking wise and reasoned decisions on the part of electorates at the ballot box so that only honest, competent, clean and ethical candidates are allowed to hold office of the local government.
In fits and starts
Nepal’s democracy has moved in fits and starts with the occasional hiccups. The 1990 constitution, written following the People’s Movement, failed to take root. It suffered bizarre paradoxes right from the outset. The constitution had envisioned welfare state but the successive governments adopted neo-liberal economic policies. Everything was left to the market, leaving the people in the lurch. Mismatch between the stated constitutional goals and actions faltered the democratic process. The attempts to live up to the vision of constitution by the first moderate communist government under Man Mohan Adhikary were nipped in the bud. The utter rightist course the nation was forced to reel under gave rise to ultra-leftist movement in the form of ruthless Maoist insurgency. The fledgling democracy was asphyxiated in the fight between two extremes. This had a detrimental impact on the decentralisation and local self-governance as spelt out in the statute.
The failure to shore up decentralisation led to the concentration of powers in the chambers of Singh Durbar controlled by the political elites of different colours. This resulted in the frustrations, agitations and conflict. The multiparty democracy, buffeted by prolonged instability, remained dysfunctional and sterile. This inordinately caused delay in addressing some ‘structural deficiencies’ of Nepali state. The ethno-centric politics, already invoked by the CPN-Maoist insurgency, led to winter of discontent in the southern plains. The agitated regional Madhesi forces demanded federal system and separate provinces on the flat land excluding the hills. Federal system has been inducted into the new constitution but the gratuitous demand to create two nations - Madhes and Hill - has now plunged the nation into intractable deadlock.
Ethnic federalism has undermined civic nationalism and put the country on the brink of territorial disintegration. This awful scenario would not have emerged if there were vibrant local democracy and effective self-rule. The local democracy is the lifeline of democratic republic. This empowers the local people to make vital decisions on the matter of public importance. The local poll is the single most effective tool to buttress the local autonomy but the election was in abeyance for almost two decades. Against his backdrop, today’s poll carries historic significance to fill the democratic void and end the state of stagnation.
The people are upbeat about the much-awaited local election. At the same time, it has witnessed some unusual development. Major parties have forged unnatural alliances to secure the victory in the election, giving an impression that the political ideology has no role in the local politics. The ruling Nepali Congress and CPN-Maoist Centre have entered into electoral alliances in several places and their chiefs have vowed to give continuity to this in the provincial and federal polls. They have attempted to justify their collaboration by stating that both were the signatories of comprehensive peace agreement. Both the parties are on the same page when it comes to addressing the demands of agitating parties. Prime Minister and Maoist Centre Chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda termed this bonhomie as ‘hard decision’ during his hustings in Bharatapur Municipality where he has fielded his daughter as the candidate for the mayoral post with the NC backing her. However, the hardcore NC functionaries were taken aback by this incongruous tie-up. The main opposition CPN-UML seems to exploit the smouldering frustrations arising from the marriage of two class foes. But, even the UML’s alliance with Rastriya Prajatantra Party in Kathmandu and Laltipur Metropolises had knocked its cadres sideways. It is interesting that both parties canvassed only for their own parties, not their allies. Apparently, it is the spirit of nationalism that has brought republican and monarchical forces closer in the election. These are the glaring instances of how the parties failed to establish any clear blue water between them.
One of the positive aspects of these unusual partnerships is that it will minimise the political tension and distance at the cost of ideology. The exponents of such alliances may argue that the political animosity should not harm the environment of the local units. Prima facie, this view sounds practical but glosses over the parties’ selfishness and deviation from the ethical norms and principled stands. Even if the parties represent the part, not the whole of the society, their word and action should be consistent with the spirit of their ideology and manifestos. Divested of ideals and principles, the elected office-bearers can hardly discharge their duty. Such representatives will succumb to corruption and moral lapses. The new statute has granted around two dozen rights to the local units. They hold immense potential to evolve the local units into strong and deliverable institutions. Therefore, this is the moment of truth for the voters to select able and popular leaders committed to peace, democracy and development.