Nepal’s local election gives power back to people
“The paradox is this: if economic rationality tells us that the next century will be the age of global integration of the world’s economies, cultural ‘irrationality’ steps in to inform us that it will also be the century of ethnic demands and revived nationalisms. Both reason and imagination tell us that the name of the solution, that point where you can balance the demands of integration and those of the nationalities, is federalism.”
-Carlos Fuentes, 1996
These were the concluding remarks in 2003 by geologist Harka Gurung quoting the Mexican novelist in his discourse ‘Trident and Thunderbolt: Cultural Dynamics in Nepalese Politics’ as part of Social Science Baha’s Mahesh Chandra Regmi Lecture.
There was a reason and relevance to Gurung quoting Fuentes. Nepal was at the peak of the Maoist conflict and had just come off one of the bloodiest years of the insurgency. Abolition of the monarchy and state restructuring were being hotly debated even in the remotest corners of Nepal. King Gyanendra had staged a coup and political parties were preparing to take to the streets.
Gurung was killed in the Ghunsa helicopter crash a few months after the ceasefire, but his 'federalism' solution was finally adopted in the 2015 Constitution.
The preamble to the Constitution reads, ‘... resolving to build an egalitarian society based on the principles of proportional inclusion and representation to ensure economic equality, prosperity and social justice by assimilating the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-cultural and geographically diverse characteristics...’
In accordance with this constitutional commitment and provision, elections for 753 local governments were held in 2017. Next month, it will be five years since they took office and on 13 May Nepalis will vote for the second time in local elections.
How successful have local governments been in 'establishing prosperity with social justice by addressing the diverse features of Nepali society' as directed by the Constitution? How much has service delivery improved, is it equitable, and is there better governance? What worked, what did not?
The lessons learnt during the past five years can be a guide for the next crop of local leaders. We need to thoroughly review the workings of local governments.
If we were to believe the political class and commentators in Kathmandu, federalism in five short years has failed Nepal. They argue that federalism has decentralised corruption and sowed the seeds of social division.
However, despite some of this being true, most local governments have performed above expectations. According to a recent evaluation, most municipalities scored more than 50 points out of 100 in their report cards.
The three local governments that scored above 75 points were all rural municipalities.
This assessment has challenged nay-sayers and proved that real federalism is working well in the hinterland. The constitutional provision that women should mandatorily be either mayor or deputy in municipalities and the Dalit community should be represented has changed the dynamics of how Nepal is governed.
Local governments are ahead of federal and provincial governments in their ability to spend development budgets. While the centre was embroiled in power struggles that paralysed provincial governments, the municipal and ward levels were quietly carrying out their duties. This has meant that there is not as much disillusionment with democracy and federalism at the grassroots.
Perhaps the best example of this is how local governments handled the Covid-19 pandemic. While the federal government was engulfed by international procurement scandals, it was the local leadership that stepped in to provide immediate relief.
This is not to say the local government were without faults which they cannot just blame on the lack of necessary laws, intervening agencies and the bureaucracy. Many elected officials have also been accused of being self-serving, inefficient and working as party cadres and not as people’s representatives.
We have to learn from these mistakes, remove legal and policy ambiguities and make local governments more responsible and capable by emphasising good governance and inclusion.
This requires a paradigm shift. The federal government with its centralised mindset, meddling provincial officials and non-cooperation from the bureaucracy must change radically. After that, it is up to the local government to make further reforms.
In their first term, local governments focused on laying the foundations for development. Now, it has to look for economic opportunities to create jobs, raise living standards, develop human resources and conserve heritage.
The first order of business to achieve this is to increase the capacity and awareness of the people to question elected representatives so that local levels are sufficiently empowered.
The local unit of government is not just the cornerstone of federalism, but also a representation of participatory democracy that connects the state with the people.
Federalism is also a threat to anti-democratic and regressive forces that want to take Nepal back to past instability. Federalism is not why the country is falling apart, as some would have it, but the cement that binds this diverse nation together.