During his 2017 Nepal visit, Yashwant Sinha, ex-foreign minister of India and a benevolent of this country, was highly impressed with the workings of Nepal’s newly elected local governments. It was the first local government on the saddle after the promulgation of the new constitution in 2015. He was influenced on a few accounts: the participation of local people in the identification of their common problems, their ability to come up with local solutions, and to implement them via their own users’ committees with financial and technical backstopping of their elected local governments.
He was even more impressed by the constitutional provision of five-year time period for elected local governments, the list of exclusive powers vested on them under Schedule 8, and concurrent powers allocated to the federal, provincial, and local governments under Schedule 9 of the constitution. In an interaction, he said that in India it took more than 40 years to bring local governments under the ambit of its constitution, something Nepal could do in one go.
Decentralization and devolution of powers to the local elected bodies, the process of participatory formulation of plans, programs, and budgets, and implementation of the programs by the beneficiaries’ user groups have been the center of attraction of Nepal’s local governance for outsiders. The government of Uganda had adopted these methodologies for its rural development in 2002 after hearing a briefing by a visiting Nepali group led by the then government secretary Dr. Bimal Koirala and Local Development Ministry Secretary Khemraj Nepal. Nepal’s experiences were also shared by Pakistan, Afghanistan, and even South Africa in their tribal belt areas.
After the promulgation of the constitution, the first election for local governments was held in 2017 in which CPN-UML had grabbed a majority of the seats (40 percent) followed by the Nepali Congress (33 percent) and CPN-Maoist Center (16 percent). The political scenario was different in 2017 as the ruling Nepali Congress and CPN (Maoist Center) had forged an alliance to contest local elections against an undivided UML.
However, it was a different story in the elections of provincial and federal parliaments only a few months later as the Maoist Center drifted away dramatically from Nepali Congress and forged an alliance with UML to gain more seats in the upcoming federal and provincial elections. Together, UML and MC got a nearly two-thirds majority (63 percent) in federal parliament and ruled six of the seven provinces. After four months of federal and provincial elections, these two parties in 2018 merged to form Nepal Communist Party (NCP). But such bonhomie could not last as the politics of Nepal took an entirely new turn in 2021. NCP was divided into three factions after a Supreme Court verdict annulling the communist merger, and Maoist Center reemerged under its old banner.
UML was further broken into two as one faction, disgruntled with off-the-cuff domineering dictates of the UML leadership, drifted away and formed a different party named CPN (Unified Socialist). These two incidents entirely changed the ‘communist calculus’ in the federal and provincial parliaments which led to the downfall of the UML government in parliament and formation of a new coalition government under NC in July 2021.
The new NC-led coalition government had to undertake gargantuan tasks of holding timely elections for local governments, and provincial and federal parliaments as stipulated in the constitution. It has so far successfully conducted elections for 753 local governments. The elected local governments in 2017—with the combined UML-MC strength of 56 percent—had paved the way for the communists getting almost two-thirds seats in the elections for federal and provincial parliaments a few months later.
However, the scenario in 2022 is different with MC at 14 percent, CPN-US at four percent, NC at 40 percent, and Madhes based parties at 6 percent—the ruling coalition thus occupies 64 percent seats compared to UML’s 34 percent. If there is no political drama in the name of communist unity, and if the present alliance continues to be at the helm, the results of federal and provincial elections may not be dissimilar to the results of local polls.
The local governments’ system as inscribed in the constitution has now evolved as a kind of potpourri for all kinds of political and socio-cultural issues which are being vented through the election process. It is quite interesting to note that out of little over 35,000 total representatives elected so far, about 15,000 (43 percent) of them are below 40. This figure almost tallies with the national figure of 40 percent of the country’s total youth population.
The constitutional status of Nepal’s present local government system has proved to be accommodative of political dissidents like CK Raut, ultra-left like Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplab’, and those like Resham Lal Chaudhary seeking ethnic identification. They openly participated in local elections with varying success. The local elections have, to an extent, washed away the old ethnic divide between Madhesi and hill people. The victory of an independent ethnic Madhesi as a mayor of Kathmandu metropolis with overwhelming votes reveals the change in the old mindset of even Kathmandu’s traditional voters.
Along with this, the victory of independent mayoral candidates in the important cities of Dharan, Dhangadhi, and Janakpur has been considered writing on the wall for major parties such as NC and UML to immediately correct their flawed modus operandi.
The contention of the Madhesi parties that all local affairs should be under the jurisdiction of provincial governments has been questioned as many sitting members of provincial parliaments resigned to contest local elections. Has the time come to rethink the practicalities of provincial governments, and devolve more power and resources to local governments?