With the announcement of single-phase local elections on May 13, the country has entered election mode. This is something to be celebrated. There was a lot of political uncertainty following the downfall of the KP Oli government. People had given a five-year mandate to the communist coalition of CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Center), which eventually merged into the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). Yet the NCP split and the government it led fell after three years. Nepali Congress, distant-second in the last parliamentary elections, never had the mandate to lead the government—and yet it does now.
It is only right that the political logjam be cleared through elections. The Sher Bahadur Deuba-led government was vacillating over local polls in what was a purely political calculation. It even seemed ready to bend electoral laws and even the constitution to postpone polls. But continuous pressure from the Election Commission, the opposition parties, the media and the civil society paid off and the government was forced to announce a timely election date. This shows that despite the myriad deficiencies in the three organs of the state, it is still difficult to easily subvert Nepal’s democratic spirit.
Besides all the usual challenges for any elections in Nepal—including curbing sky-high campaign spending—there is also the added burden of holding such a vast mass-mobilization exercise during a deadly pandemic, which, despite its ebbs and flows, shows no sign of soon disappearing. The big challenge here will not be getting voters to maintain social distance or wear masks. It will rather be to convince political parties to resist from holding unnecessary rallies and gatherings: such reckless electoral campaigning was largely responsible for the troubling recent spurt of covid infections in the neighboring Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and in West Bengal and Assam a year earlier.
It will be a tricky balancing act between continuing with a vital democratic exercise and safeguarding public health. But the announcement of local elections undoubtedly represents a rare silver lining in the otherwise gloomy Nepali political skies.