With the local elections set for May 13, political parties in Nepal are gearing up to compete for the 753 mayoral and (equally many) deputy-mayoral posts, and thousands of chief posts.
The 2017 local elections yielded a landslide victory for the CPN-UML as a result of the alliance formed between the two major parties—CPN-UML and the CPN-Maoist Center. While much was expected from the new system, there existed significant barriers for the leaders given the policy and legislative ambiguities. As a result, the inability of the government to smoothly implement the promised plans and agendas were, for the most part, overlooked by the general people. In the past five years, the 17.7 million voters have witnessed few developments. They were basically told that the country was laying foundations for the effective execution of federalism. But for the most part, what they got was administrative turmoil and political bickering. Many were still willing to give the benefit of doubt to their leaders, given this context. And this time around, the expectation was that political parties would come to the people empowered and ready to deliver.
Unfortunately, little has changed. With less than three weeks to go for local-level elections, political parties are just finalizing their candidates and some are yet to publicize their manifestos. This means that there is little to no time for the general public to scrutinize the agendas and candidates to make informed decisions.
Even among the ones that have published their manifestos, there isn’t any newness and innovation. It is the same old wine. Parties are still not connecting their promises with the larger national agenda of economic prosperity. Providing allowance for calves, free electricity to households, and making ring roads in all local units without giving regard to their feasibility are all blatantly populist statements. Despite sounding appealing, these agendas will not converge into helping the general people attain tangible benefits. Similar to the construction of view-towers and gates at local levels, the farthest they will go is to appease some of the party cadres in the name of some quick economic gains.
More importantly, party headquarters are rolling out the local election manifestos of all parties which is a complete disregard to the spirit of federalism and popular will. After federalism, it was believed that with the local governments being closer to the grassroots, local leadership would be built around identifying local issues and demands, and local politics would be about addressing those issues and demands. Alas, nothing could be farther from the truth. If anything, local levels are turning into apprenticeship grounds for younger political leaders who will graduate and qualify for higher levels.
While candidates and political parties should have been connecting with their constituencies to try to win elections, finding short-cuts has taken prominence. One strategy adopted by the leading parties has been forming alliances. The five ruling parties—Nepali Congress, CPN-Maoist Center, CPN-Unified Socialist, Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal and Ratriya Janamorcha—have decided that they will run the local election under an alliance. Likewise, the biggest party in Nepal—CPN-UML—has also formed an alliance with Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal and Nepal Pariwar Dal. This simply indicates how immature and ignorant our politics and political actors are with regard to the idea of a democracy that delivers. Indeed they are great politicians from the point of view of struggles for power, but that greatness is a greater threat to federalism.
Even if we discount the notion of federalism for a while, the kind of alliances that we see has other important bearings for the future. Alliances, as we have seen, have been a major part of politics at any level. Now suppose an alliance wins, say, in the general elections. The very fact that people unite under a banner of a political party is because they share a common ideology and certain principles. These principles are expected to guide future decisions of that political group. With parties that subscribe to different value systems, principles and ideologies forming alliances, conflicts when it comes to making decisions are more inevitable than within a single-party government. All this will lead to a political deadlock which then halts the nation from moving ahead.
The matter would certainly have been different if the alliances were formed at the local level through local leaders based on resemblances in agenda between the two—a practice embraced by democratic states. But ours is plainly a case where federal politics has permeated to each level, yet again hindering the bottom-up approach of development as envisioned by a federal structure. Given the limited power and influence of local leaders in decision-making, the local agendas will always take the backseat.
For an optimist, all this could change for the better after we practice a few rounds of elections under the current system. But will we? History is not on our side.
This article was originally published in Nepal Live Today by Ayushma Maharjan on 25 April, 2022.