Local elections: a step for strengthening democracy in Nepal?

By Ambika Pokhrel

17 July 2017: The last time local elections took place in Nepal was 20 years ago. But now the path to democracy, and to peace, is being frustrated by strikes and election boycotts. Ambika Pokhrel reports.

The Nepalese people have not voted in local elections for 15 years. But although elections are now scheduled, the path to democracy is still under threat.  Photo: United Nations Photo.

Local level elections are being held in Nepal for the first time after declaring the new constitution in September 2015. The last time elections were held in 1997, meaning the Nepalese people have been left without local representatives for 15 years after the last term of the elected representatives ended in 2002.  

Years of Maoist conflict and an unstable political situation meant local polls were unable to take place. But now elections are going ahead, arranged in three phases over different provinces between May-September 2017.

Constitutional amendment demands

Writing a new constitution was one of the major tasks of Nepal’s peace process and holding elections are the primary tasks for implementing it
The government had initially decided to conduct elections in two phases. But some Madhes-based political parties, mainly the newly unified Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N), have opposed the government’s decision to hold the election without amending the constitution.

All the Madhes-based political parties have been demanding an amendment of the constitution since it was declared in September 2015. The RJP-Nepal was formed by unification of six small Madhes-based political parties on 3 May 2017. Since then it has been organising anti-election protests demanding that the constitution be amended before holding the election.

Writing a new constitution was one of the major tasks of Nepal’s peace process and holding elections are the primary tasks for implementing the new constitution and strengthening the foundation of democracy in Nepal.

Elections in Province 2 have caused the most disruption. All the districts of Province 2 are located in Madhes. The agitating RJP-N has been organising protests, rallies and strikes to obstruct the polls and preparation of the polls of the second phase.

The Madhes-based political parties have also demanded that a constitutional amendment be conducted before the local level elections  although the two-third majority needed to secure this in parliament has not been met. Their demands include redefining and delineating the boundary of the Provinces and electoral constituency based on population instead of based on ‘population and geography’, like their demand of electoral constituency at the provincial and at the national/federal level. Additionally, the RJP-N has demanded that the number of local bodies should be increased before holding the local level elections.

Election delay and the effects on peace

The Election Commission is also concerned about the frequent postponing of the election date and the knock on effect for provincial and national elections
In light of the election boycotts, the government took a few different actions. First, the government postponed the candidates’ nomination date for three days to accommodate the RJP-N in the first phase polls.

Second, the date of the second phase of the election has been postponed twice, with efforts to bring the RJP-N into the election. However, the RJP-N rejected the government’s frequent efforts to bring it in the polls.  Finally, the government reached the decision to postpone only the Province 2 election on September 18. Holding all three level elections  local, provincial and federal (national) is the primary task of implementing the new constitution and completing Nepal’s peace process. Nepal has to complete the three elections by the end of this year 2017.

None of the political parties including the Madhes-based parties agreed with the government’s decision to postpone the Province 2 election date. However, they all accepted the decision and have been engaging in the elections in the hope that RJP-N would join in the polls. The Election Commission of Nepal is also concerned about the frequent postponing of the election date. It said that delaying the local level election would affect holding provincial and national elections. The RJP-N did not accept the decision of delaying the polls and instead declared an election boycott.

Division in leadership

The Nepalese people want the election to go ahead. The should not be denied their right to vote
Although the leaders of the RJP-N are against the election, political workers and leaders at the local level have been registering their names as candidates in the election – an action against the will of the party.

However, some central level leaders of the RJP-N in Kapilvastu Municipality and in Lumbini Municipality have registered their candidates for the Mayor post in Province 5. They have said that they have listened to peoples and taken part in the polls to fulfill the peoples' expectations. They are fearful of being disciplined for going against the party’s decision to boycott the elections.

Equally, the party is under pressure to understand the people’s expectation of holding the election. The Nepalese people certainly want the election to go ahead. They want their representatives and the presence of local bodies in place after such a long time without elections. People want the local government to govern the local level, and strengthen peace and democracy from the local level upwards. They should not be denied their right to vote.

Women representatives

The number of women representatives has increased since the election of the Constituent Assembly (CA) in 2008. Around 40% women were in the CA in 2008 and in 2013 – for the first time in Nepal’s history. This happened because of a constitutional provision requiring 33% of the Assembly to be made of women.

Likewise, the number of women in the local polls has increased rapidly in the first phase of the election polls. The provision in the constitution and in the ‘Local Level Election Regulation’ that states: “political parties should guarantee 50% women candidates in the post of Mayor or Deputy Mayor in the Municipality and Chairperson or Vice-chairperson in the Village Council.” Similarly, two women candidates should be guaranteed at the Ward level.

5,445 women were elected out of 13,400 local elected representatives in the first phase of the election in Provinces 3, 4 and 6. This means female representatives have secured 40% representation in the local bodies in the first phase of the election. This will certainly guarantee an increased number of women in the local bodies in the upcoming local elections. There is a predicted 40% of women in the local bodies altogether.

Despite this, the majority of women elected were for posts as Deputy Mayors or Vice-Chairpersons in the Municipality and Village Council. This is because all the political parties have entirely given the deputy and the vice-chairperson post to women. In the first phase of polls, only 4 women were elected to the Mayor post out of 96 elected Mayors, whereas 87 were elected to the Deputy Mayor post. Similarly, out of total 186 chairpersons of the Village Council, only 8 women were elected for Chairperson whereas 164 elected for the Vice-Chairperson.

Experts have argued that the number of women’s representatives has increased in the local polls because of legal provisions. Where the legal provisions are not mandatory for female representatives, the numbers of elected women were very low. There is still some way to go until women are on an equal footing with men, establishing equality in society. Increasing the number of women representatives in all sectors would be an assertive way to address the inequality women face, a factor that still overshadows peace and democracy in Nepal. 

Institutionalisation of democracy

People are eagerly waiting to see a Nepal based on the new constitution as the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal
One of the major tasks for implementing the new constitution, declared in September 2015, is holding elections at the national, provincial and local levels. The first phase of the local polls was completed, the second phase is coming soon and the date has been confirmed for the third phase polls.

However, there are some unsatisfied parties who boycott the polls demanding constitutional amendment before they take place. But the Nepalese people want the election. Having gone 15 years without representatives, they want their say. People are eagerly waiting to see a Nepal based on the new constitution as the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, with all institutions finally in place. It is time for their patience to be rewarded. 

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