Finally, the ruling coalition has heeded the Election Commission and agreed to hold local elections at the end of April. This clears the way for elections to all three tiers of government, forestalling a worrying political and constitutional vacuum. It could also break the current political logjam. As important, timely local elections will prevent a repeat of the ugly post-2002 period when local bodies were without elected officials for 15-long-years, their absence spawning a corrosive culture of ‘corruption by consensus’.
The ruling coalition, and particularly Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, had been hesitating to announce local elections as it feared the April timing would benefit CPN-UML, the main opposition, and harm the coalition partners, including Nepali Congress. But constant pressure from the UML as well as the civil society paid off and the coalition had to relent. However this decision came about, it is the right one. There can be no democracy without a periodic renewal of people’s mandate.
Covid-19 will continue to stalk local elections, even though the country is projected to be well off peak-infection by April-end. More worryingly, the Election Commission could struggle to properly enforce election code of conduct. In 2017 local elections, some ward-level candidates had spent up to a million rupees in campaigning; a whopping Rs 50 billion were spent just on campaigning for local elections across the country. If running in local elections is so costly, contesting provincial and federal elections has become prohibitive, barring all but the richest folks from contesting.
Does the commission have enough money and manpower to strictly enforce the code of conduct across the country, come April? Can it defy those in power and function with a high level of independence? How will it ensure compliance with covid protocols? How will the commission, historically notorious for buying all kinds of unnecessary vehicles and equipment on election-eve, minimize its costs this time? The deliberations on these vital questions have to start today. Two-months is not a long time given the scale of the task: managing elections across 753 local units, with tens of thousands of candidates in the fray.