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Monday, May 8th, 2017

Editorial cartoon

It is only now becoming clear how close Nepal and its democracy had come to a fatal plunge last week as the executive and the judiciary faced each other off at the edge of the cliff. Showing a singular lack of appreciation of what they were  doing, the coalition led by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and prime-minister-in-waiting Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress arm-twisted (some say, tricked) one-fourths of Parliament into signing an impeachment motion against Chief Justice Sushila Karki.

Never before in Nepal’s turbulent history, not even in the bad old days of the absolute monarchy, was the judiciary dealt such a severe knock. The fact that two alpha males of Nepali politics went for a constitutional instrument of last resort just because their fragile egos were dented, exposed just how shallow their commitment to democracy is. Going against every principle of the separation of powers, the executive branch got a lapdog legislature to hound the judiciary.

Deuba was willing to sacrifice his country, the future of our democracy because his feelings were hurt. The Supreme Court had ruled in favour of Nabaraj Silwal and against his nominee for police chief, Jaya Bahadur Chand. Prime Minister Dahal himself had no love lost for Chief Justice Karki because of her rulings on wartime crimes, and allowed Deuba to shoot himself in the foot. But by blatantly undermining a judiciary which has played an activist role on transitional justice cases, the coalition elicited sharp criticism from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) among others.

The Supreme Court ruled on a writ petition on 30 April to reinstate¬†Chief Justice Karki. Since then, both the coalition partners as well as the judiciary have pulled back from the edge ‚Äď probably with the intention of not letting the dispute disrupt the first phase of local elections on 14 May. Parliament has been suspended till after elections and the impeachment motion shelved for now. The Chief Justice, for her part, has reportedly said she will not hear any more cases till she retires next month.

This unnecessary crisis had added another element of uncertainty to local elections, but now that both sides have pulled back voting will go ahead in three of the six provinces on Sunday. There is considerable anticipation among Nepalis that the first local body election in two decades will finally usher in an era of development and inclusion.

This is the first election under the new constitution and the new village and municipal councils will have far more decentralised decision-making on local revenue generation and budget than the VDCs and DDCs ever had. The nearly 4,000 VDC boundaries were designed for an age when Nepal was largely roadless and there was poor connectivity. The Maoists decimated elected VDC representatives during the conflict, and Deuba during his second tenure as prime minister cancelled scheduled local elections in 2002. Now, the new 481 village, 246 municipal 17 metropolitan councils have the economic and political autonomy to use their economies of scale to fast-track development.

We have seen how the three-party political syndicate in the absence of elected local bodies has pocketed development grants, plundered rivers and forests with political protection over the past decades.  There is now a danger that the politico-criminal nexus that profited from the lack of grassroots accountability is now fielding candidates for village and municipal councils. Combined with the enhanced decision-making powers of local councils, this could spell disaster.

Our only hope is that people at the local level are far more aware of who the crooks are, and will  judge wisely when they enter the voting booth on Sunday.

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