The political clock in Nepal turns back to almost two decades back when the parties had been embroiled into the issues and controversies bearing upon the destiny of the local government. As the five-year term of the local governments -- village development committees (VDCs), municipalities and district development committees (DDCs) -- was nearing completion in those days, political parties were weighing in the realpolitik pros and cons of whether to keep the local governments alive and going taking recourse to the term extension or bid farewell to the elected representatives and handover them at the purview of the state officials' managerial mandate.
The provision in the then local Self-governance Act, 1999 that was replaced not very long back by the Local Government Operation Act, 2017 formulated consistent with the provision of the Federal Democratic Constitution, 2015 had been categorical and unambiguous enough to allow for the term extension of the elected representatives at least for a one year period to the minimum. However, the Nepali Congress government that was headed by Sher Bahadur Deuba did not choose to extend the term allegedly due to the political consideration. It is to be noted that the CPN-UML had been the dominant political force at the local level with almost 60 per cent of the local governments ruled by the representatives supporting the communist party.
Political expediency As discussed and commented in the media during those days, Nepali Congress resorted to the stratagems of sheer realpolitik political expediency by denying extension to the UML-dominated local governments at the grassroots since this would further help in entrenching and strengthening the rival party’s organisational grip to take advantage during the elections.
According to the NC’s assessment, UML leader Bam Dev Gautam, who was looking after the portfolio of the Home Ministry during the local polls had masterminded to deploy every means - both fair and foul - including rigging, booth capture, voter intimidation to grab solid win for his party in the local polls. NC was, therefore, aghast and not ready to reconcile to its poor showing in the local polls which it had also raised and sounded objections time and again after the polls for many years. Even today wrongly or rightly Bamdev-style election has been used euphemistically to characterise unfair and unscrupulous type polls.
In fact, this must be one of the reasons besides its own partisan oriented interest and political expediency why Nepali Congress was unsympathetic to the local bodies, and had taken recourse to refusing their extension. However, non-extension of the term unfortunately had plunged the local democracy into the prolonged crisis and stalemate. Local elections had been stalled for many years due to the worsened security situation, persistent vulnerability and weakening of the state engendered due to the Maoist-led insurgency in particular. The nation's resources, energy and efforts had been all focused and invested as to how to cope, address and resolve the conflict and restore peace in the country.
The local elections were, indeed, a matter of least priority and thus had been a non-issue in those days. It is really dismaying to note that political parties failed to take cognizance of the imperative of holding the local elections when they resolved the ten year long armed conflict, agreed to hold the polls for historic Constituent Assembly following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
In fact, instituting democratically elected institutions at the local level had been needed in rebuilding and calibrating the state from the grassroots. However, it was never a matter of consideration and deliberation among the major political stakeholders and state actors. As a result, local governments were allowed to go dysfunctional and moribund for almost two decades squandering all hopes for participatory democracy.
Needless to say, after a long interregnum, local governments received a new architecture, mandate and competency following the promulgation of the Constitution of Nepal, 2015 which was authored by the much acclaimed historic and inclusive CA. The federal constitution has elevated the local bodies to the constitutionally recognised, valued and chartered democratic institutions. The local elections, as mentioned above, were conducted in 2017 for a period of five years and the tenure of the elected functionaries – mayors, chairpersons and the others -- manning the 753 local governments in the country is going to expire during the upcoming months.
Legitimate leverage The coalition government at present is headed by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba during the tenure of which the term of the local bodies was not extended and allowed to expire even as the then law had permitted for it at least once for year if the unusual circumstances warranted it. The Deuba-led coalition is also faced with the same dilemma these days today as the UML is positioned strongly to challenge the constituent parties cobbled together in the government in the electoral competition even though its support base at the grassroots has been threatened and rendered fragile due to intra-party divisions.
Constitutionally, local governments are stronger and cannot be dispensed with as they are instituted and mandated as one of the important spheres of the federal government. The federal government is under an obligation to hold elections as prescribed in the constitution within six months following the termination of the tenure. However, the Deuba-led coalition government is trying to find some excusable and legitimate leverage to adjust the timing of the elections to hold the local, provincial and federal level polls at the same time.
This is being contemplated as reported to buy at least some months to gather strength and ensure that the rival UML will be in no position to use its local base to recoup strength and offer neck to neck competition at the election across all levels. However, as pressure is being intensified to announce the schedules or timing for elections including from the Election Commission itself, the coalition government is expected to make its positions clear accordingly to ensure that the local democratic electoral exercise is conducted without prejudicing the constitutional arrangement.
(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow. firstname.lastname@example.org)