Monday, 17 June, 2024

The Locomotives Of Local Self-Governance

The Locomotives Of Local Self-Governance

Dev Raj Dahal

The Election Commission (EC) has set May 13 as the date of nationwide local elections where about 1.8 million voters are expected to cast their ballots to elect 35,221 local representatives. Leaders of political parties have begun to knock the doors of people to get the whirlwind of messages and reap votes. The 753 local units composed of six metropolises, 11 sub-metropolises, 276 municipalities and 460 rural municipalities are the locomotives that drive local self-governance in Nepal for a tenure of five years.

They are also the laboratories of democracy and a burst of popular sovereignty that determine the social contract and foundation of national progress. A total of 79 political parties have so far registered at the EC to participate in it out of which only six national parties — Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), Nepali Congress, CPN-Maoist Centre, Janata Samajbadi Party, CPN-Unified Socialist and Loktantrik Samajbadi Party – have uniform party symbols. Eleven small parties have their representation in all three tiers of governance.

A group of 73 small political parties are struggling to get previous symbols and negotiating with the EC. The Local Level Election Act and the Political Parties Regulations mandate only national parties have their uniform symbols. The EC has to placate the cynical forces who profess to reject local elections and provoke very emotive issues to inflame the voters without any intent to satisfy. Creation of election-friendly security, political and psychological milieu is essential for public confidence. Democracy detests the temptation of leaders for power monopoly by any means and entails fair flow of people in power.

Expenses ceiling
The EC has also fixed a maximum expenditure limit of Rs. 750,000 for candidates contesting for the posts of mayor and deputy mayor of metropolitan cities, Rs. 550,000 for sub-metropolitan cities, Rs. 450,000 for municipalities and Rs. 350,000 for rural municipalities. Financial integrity is a key part of the electoral game to reduce corruption and enforce accountability. A cut in electoral cost can foster volunteerism and throttle subversive sway of money in politics. It is, however, difficult to keep financial integrity. There are many indigenous ways to manipulate it. Most political parties and individual candidates have covert sources of finance and the EC has limited capacity for monitoring and enforcing the code of conduct.

The past practices reveal a lapse of its responsibility. Nepali people want to know how much money is spent by candidates in the election and the source of their funds. Fair electoral process is as important in democracy as its outcome whether political parties and individuals form electoral alliances or not. It is the source of legitimacy and authority, not an end in itself. In Nepal, the performance of leadership provides the output legitimacy and trust of people that they are responsible to the fullness of their fulfilling lives.

Free choice of Nepali voters in selecting the local leadership can only come about if they are equipped with proper civic knowledge, skills and disposition and their economy gives them the power of freewill. Supplying voters’ information is necessary to increase electoral turnout which is not a problem in the nation. But it is not sufficient for their informed participation and decision. This is the second local governance election after five years of its experiment under the new constitutional dispensation. The elected representatives in the first phase had to spend most of their energy and efforts in building institutions and infrastructures and crafting suitable laws by applying self-improvement measures.

Now, these local bodies are reasserting themselves to influence the central decision-making system pertaining to their demands - more rights, authorities, resources and personnel and express people’s needs, opinions and feelings which are more than ideological or project-centric approaches. A reasonably decentralised local regime in Nepal is the cost-effective way of leveraging sustainable development and reshaping leadership, institutions and societies beyond paternalistic guardians.

The Local Government Operation Act that came into effect on October 15, 2017 has set a strong legal base to institutionalise legislative, executive and quasi-judiciary functions of the local self-governance. This Act has stipulated their roles, responsibilities and rights which are central to strengthen democracy from the masses and foster overall progress of the nation. Certain rights are shared with the centre and provinces while others are its exclusive prerogatives. The effectiveness of these bodies in democracy, service delivery and social peace enhances the trust of people and infuses authority, legitimacy and credibility of local leadership. The legislative authority of local bodies chiefly pertains to formulate relevant local laws and policies for municipalities and rural municipalities.

It also guides, monitors, evaluates and checks the unfair actions of the executive. Under the executive functions, local bodies are entitled to dispense local administration, mobilise tax, finance and resources, formulate policies, plans and budget, involve in decision making on vital matters and execute those decisions. The quasi-judicial function involves the mediation and adjudication of local disputes, resolve grievances and animate the culture and aspiration of Nepalis to fulfill their constitutional and human rights.

Disillusioned with political radicalism, the first local election under the new constitutional arrangement had witnessed the expanding power of middle men, contractors, syndicates, money –lenders, NGOs and dominant interests in representative politics whose vices had overwhelmed the sublime virtues of local leadership to become fairly responsive to the people’s needs. Similarly, partisanisation of local efforts had also cut the efficacy of local leaders to impartially perform and fulfill the legitimate expectations of people. In this context, how local leadership evolves in Nepal is a matter of great concern.

In this great transformative moment, building the resilience of local bodies-elected, governmental, business, civil society and citizens’ groups, their associations and federations is essential to a collaborative enterprise in a new scale of synergic capabilities, uphold mutual accountability and hone their collective passion to promote the Nepali peoples’ wellbeing. Local bodies are broadly representative of social diversity as per the inclusive, proportional and participatory nature of the Constitution of Nepal. It has guaranteed women’s share to 41 per cent, those of Dalits 22 per cent and a certain quota for micro minorities and the marginalised enabling them to share political power.

It is, however, yet to build their civic competence so that like elite groups of society, they can become active decision makers, not only passive takers of decisions and discourage the tendency of top leaders to keep feeding free riders, clients, supporters and already well-connected groups of society than the ordinary people. The personalised, centralised and fragmented mode of party operation has already created fences for social modernisation. As a result, social media and social movements continue to highlight the blind spots of democracy which conceal power monopoly as leadership caution, grit and virtues.

Optimisation and automatisation of delivery of quality of public goods and services form an important area of local rule where 6,743 wards, the lowest tiers of self-governance, are full of zip to meet the expectations of ordinary people. They are entitled to expand basic services and improve the access and outreach mechanism of people in matters of alleviating generational poverty, increasing jobs, decent income, health, education, drinking water, sanitation, infrastructure building, maintenance of roads, parks and recreation centres, technical service, etc. and production and management related activities thus optimising the economy of scale and dispensation of social justice. The virtues of local democracy do not flourish if people continuously face the scarcity of public goods such as improved variety of seeds, fertiliser, irrigation facility, medicine, construction materials, technical personnel, etc.

The downward spiral of development indicators provides grounds for the positive criticism of the attentive public. During the epidemic of coronavirus, however, local bodies have played major roles in setting up isolation centres, operation of health camps, mobilisation of health workers, distribution of reliefs, anti-virus injection and medicines and easing the travel of people to their destinations. Awareness of health and local efforts has improved the range and quality of maternal and child hearth cares demonstrating best practices.

Local governments have reaped adaptive and utilitarian benefits in improving the quality of community schools, increased health facilities, transportation and communication, investment in infrastructures, drinking waters, construction of office buildings and upgrading of roads connectivity. They are considered important for the expansion of local innovation, entrepreneurship, business, market and transactions. Local bodies have learned the art of setting informal policy lab for formulation of planning, setting of priorities and addressing some of the problems vital to people’s lives, needs and livelihoods. Some local bodies have entered into public-private partnership, planned for industrial estate, set up cooperative and savings and credit institutions, collected data of unemployed youths, constructed houses for marginalised and Dalits, education for girl child, save daughter campaign, insurance for girl child, etc.

Returnee migrant workers have self-driving initiatives. Some of them have set up animal husbandry, bird farming to supply eggs and meats, bee keeping, planting of new varieties of fruits, small bars and shops thus engaging in income generating activities and contributing to local public economy. There are, however, unsettled problems of border demarcation of some municipalities, sharing of resources and embankment of rivers to protect fertile lands and crops from landslides and mitigation of the effects of climate change. Local authorities are criticised for appropriating social security funds, foreign travels, increased perks and facilities, buying luxury vehicles, increased travel allowances, operating manpower companies, indulging in the wild mining of sands and boulders for sale, etc. This demands a strong regulatory mechanism so that local authorities do not bypass the rule of law.

Ironically, the higher apparatuses in the nation are swollen by surplus money, leaders, public officials and security personnel while the bottom by downsised units, lack of skilled personnel, resources and experiences and some form of disharmony between politics and administration. This has marred the expected output legitimacy of local institutions. To balance top-down and bottom-up process democratisation of internal life of political parties is essential as it opens the space for a culture of listening to the people in matters of candidates selection, local concerns and issues, institutionalisation of local party committees and link the party to grassroots not only during elections but also in the day to day affairs.

The autonomy of local bodies from fractious party politics can serve as locomotives spurring common good. It scrambles to make local elections meaningful for the people, not only for parties to vault their cadres over the political positions breeding clientele politics. The principles of subdiarity are the best way to pull local democracy and keep its dynamic by a feedback between leaders and people. Financial integrity of local authorities is vital to enable development dividends to reach the people. It is central to control the toxic agents of the system, strengthen local self-rule and realise the constitutional objectives of welfare regime, sustainable development, good governance, justice and peace.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)