It is a scandal that as the country marks the 67th Democracy Day today local level election, which is the bedrock of the democratic system, has not taken place in Nepal for nearly two decades. How can our major political parties, the supposed torchbearers of people’s wishes and aspirations, justify depriving people of their first line of contact with elected government for so long? In survey after survey, whether they are conducted up in the mountains or down in the plains, the vast majority of Nepalis have expressed their desire for swift local election. For even though most Nepali citizens might never have to directly deal with the government at the center in Kathmandu, they will most certainly have to engage with their local administrative units on which they have to rely for most basic documents like birth and death registration certificates. But in the absence of elected officials, these units are now being run by unelected government bureaucrats who have gained notoriety for working in cahoots with local units of political parties in order to divide the development funds among themselves. People are well aware of this open loot of state coffers and shoddy service-delivery. But they can do nothing because local officials are not answerable to them, or to anyone.
This is why, on the auspicious occasion of the Democracy Day today, Prime Minster Pushpa Kamal Dahal should announce the date for local level election, in keeping with the suggestion of the Election Commission. The commission has suggested that local election be held in two phases, the first phase up in the hilly and mountainous regions and the second phase, to be held 20 days after the first phase, in the plains. The calculation seems to be that if election is successfully held in hilly regions, an environment will also be created for election in the plains. We agree. If we continue to wait for perfect conditions for local election—boundaries of local level units happily settled and all Madheshi parties on board—then there will be no local polls in the foreseeable future. And if the local election is indefinitely put off, so will
provincial and federal elections, thereby inviting a serious constitutional crisis—there will be a big question mark over the legitimacy of the new constitution if all three elections cannot be held within the next 11 months.
But if elections are swiftly announced and the first phase can be successfully held by mid-May, the political parties representing Tarai-Madhesh will be under public pressure to complete the second phase on time as well. This is because common Madheshis are unlikely to accept a situation whereby half the people in the country can easily avail themselves of essential government services while they themselves are deprived of the benefits of having elected and accountable local-level office-bearers. There is also no reason why the process of resolving outstanding constitutional issues has to stop, as Madheshi parties fear, just because local elections are announced. The boundaries of local level units and provinces can be changed, as and when required, for the constitution is always a work in progress. And if certain issues simply can’t be sorted out, again, the only democratic way out is a fresh public mandate. No democratic party can indefinitely run away from periodic elections.