Why govt plan to delay local elections puts Nepal democracy in peril

A woman casts her vote during the third phase of local elections in Bara district of Madhes (then Province 2), on Monday, September 18, 2017.
A woman casts her vote during the third phase of local elections in Bara district of Madhes (then Province 2), on Monday, September 18, 2017.

When Nepal formed its first constituent assembly in 2008, there was a talk about conducting the local elections three months prior to the term ending. But, as the parliament was dissolved without writing the constitution, the talk subsided. But, the constitution drafted by the second constituent assembly in 2015 stated that the local elections should be held within six months of their term ending.

However, when the lawmakers made a law to implement the constitution, they changed it in a manner that stated the elections have to be held before the term of the current post holders ended. But now, the same lawmakers who made this law want to change things. They are looking at ways to delay local elections by a year.

If it happens, this will push back the country to the time when the parties used to form all-party mechanisms that gave all parties positions at the local level in the late 2000s. If the elections are postponed, it will have a negative impact on federalism as well and will also affect the federal government in the long run.

Local elections in a democracy

Elections are just a regular process. For advocates of democracy, the elections are just the means but not the ends; hence, when, how, where are not important. But, a lot of countries set a time when elections should happen. Even the politicians in these countries respect the elections and do not use them as a strategy to boost their political careers. That should have been the case in Nepal as well.

To get to this point, Nepal has been through a lot. But, it seems like the political parties and their leaders have forgotten. A decade-long war, a flawed peace process/transitional justice process, and the formation of two constituent assemblies are just a few things that have happened in Nepal. The constitution has envisioned the local units, thinking everything in mind.

To ensure that the position of the local level government is not left vacant, the constitution has the provision to elect these people within six months before the term ends. But, the newly formed coalition that is ruling the country now is trying to convince people that the constitution and the law are contradictory and wants to extend the dates of the elections.

Impact of possible delay

A meeting of the ruling coalition in Kathmandu, on Tuesday, January 18, 2022.
A meeting of the ruling coalition in Kathmandu, on Tuesday, January 18, 2022.

But, if the local elections are postponed, all 753 local units will not be given any funds to carry out any programmes. Along with this, they also will not be able to collect any taxes and will also be barred from spending any money. Even though the work done by the local governments is questionable, their role in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic has been great. So if they are not given a budget, they will have a hard time doing any good work in their areas.

Another issue is if the local elections are not held in the coming six months, it will also affect various sections of the constitution. The future of the Local Consolidated Fund that is talked about in article 229 of the constitution is under threat. This will result in a lot of development work halting, which will also affect the federal government as it will not be able to use the money that will be deposited in this account.

The duties given to the local level cannot be passed to others. Delay in the local elections will mean that even tax collection will be affected. Article 214 (3) of the constitution has barred anyone from delegating or transferring the power of the local level to any other government body. Even if the intentions of the people are good, the constitution bars them from getting such power.

The local level is quite powerful in Nepal’s federal system. While the term can be extended by six months in the case of the federal and provincial governments, it cannot be done at the local level. And, if the local elections are not held on time, it will also affect the appointment of National Assembly members as locally elected representatives also have to take part in the process. This goes to show how important local elections are.

Local elections are the key to democracy

The local level works differently from the central and the provincial level of the government. Unless for some lawfully allowed provisions, once elected representative cannot be replaced.

Governance experts say that around 70 per cent of the government services can be delegated to the local level. This is why they believe there should be no delay in the elections as the local level plays an important role in the public interest.

But, senior leaders of the ruling coalition like Sher Bahadur Deuba, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who know how important the local level is, want to postpone the polls. They have been trying to bend the vaguely written laws to make the Election Commission postpone it.

Postponing the local elections will also give the local leaders a chance to shy away from being accountable. This will mean the people will not be able to hold their representatives accountable. So, it is important that local elections are held as soon as possible.

The term of local governments is ending in April, July and September as the local elections were held in three phases in 2017. It took a lot of effort to reduce around 3,800 local units to 753 powerful local governments and hold the elections for the first time there. So, it is clear that the system in place is a good one and now it is important that we make sure that we make it better than before not worse.

Perhaps that is why the Election Commission is telling the government to come up with a date for local elections at the earliest.

What if?

Sher Bahadur Deuba speaks during the inaugural of the Nepali Congress general convention, in Kathmandu, in December 2021.
Sher Bahadur Deuba speaks during the inauguration of the Nepali Congress general convention, in Kathmandu, in December 2021.

But if the elections are stalled, what is the government planning to do with the posts that will be left vacant? Who will take the role of the ward chair? What about the mayor? Who will replace them?

Will they now try to bring an ordinance and give it to someone from the bureaucracy? Does the constitution, that they wrote, allow them to do this?

If these people are not replaced, the general public finds it hard to make documents like relationship certificate, birth certificate, death certificate and document that shows a person has moved. Along with that, people will also not be able to make citizenship certificates, passports and documents related to land. Are they trying to cancel the local elections and divide the positions among themselves like they did after Gyanendra Shah left the throne?

This government called out KP Sharma Oli and his government for being totalitarians and rightly so. But, how is it any different when it is trying to stop a democratic process?

If indeed the elections are postponed, it will make the constitution weak. If the local governments are made weak, its effects will be felt on all levels of the government as people will start to question the foundations on which the three levels have been formed.

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Gaunle is the editor-in-chief of Onlinekhabar since February 2021.

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