In July 2002, the Deuba-led government cited the Maoist war as justification for letting the tenure of all local government representatives lapse. In 2006, the King tried to resurrect local government through elections, but nobody accepted the results.
In early 2008, there was an opportunity to provide a fresh start for local government bodies. But the politicians agreed among themselves that drafting the national constitution was so important that the simple, if banal, practice of choosing your own representatives to look after the affairs of your village or district was a task best suited for some future time. As a result, for the last nine years, almost 4000 village development committees, 58 municipalities and 57 district development committees across Nepal have had no local representatives. Next time you see piles of garbage on the streets of Kathmandu, don't bother asking who your mayor is.
The bigger implication is that we now have national Democracy - the one with the capital D, the one about national elections, competing political parties, and so on. But in pursuit of Democracy, we have been smothering democracy ? the one with the small d, the one about the simple practice of local people electing their neighbours and villagers to local public offices for a fixed number of years to address communities' problems. Such a democracy is about holding locally elected officials accountable for the results, or lack thereof, of local development.
This was on my mind as I completed my visit to eastern Nepal two weeks ago. The heads of local government in all the municipalities are all government-appointed bureaucrats. They are not necessarily from the cities they have been assigned to serve. As is customary, they hold their posts for a relatively short time - about two years, if not less. Given how career games in a bureaucracy play out, they have more incentive to please their Ministry's bosses in Kathmandu than the local people.
Moreover, these heads report to local boards, which are often coalitions of the local reps of all national political parties. These are politicians who have been shut out from the national stage. But without the pressure of facing elections, they are content to take credit in their party's name for anything good that happens in their municipality while blocking local reforms that are likely to reflect well on other parties. Over time, such repeated posturing plays out in such a way that the local boards are often dysfunctional when it comes to working in the interests of locals.
Some village communities have gotten around this problem of local mis-governance. In one locality I visited on the outskirts of Kathmandu last week, the homogeneity of the local population seems to have allowed a reservoir of trust to build up among the people. This made it easier for a respected community figure to emerge as a leader to positively influence the process of local governance when it came to, say, having villagers install toilets and basic water mains. But this is also a troubling sign, in that this sort of Big Man approach to governance is not what democracy is about.
Depriving local citizens the practice of choosing their own representatives is probably the greatest quiet danger to Democracy than all the political strutting by parties in the capital.