Nepali Times
By The Way
A decade of democratic deficit 


How much have the above services changed in your area in the last few years?
April 2006 ushered in a new phase of democracy in Nepal. But at the grassroots, democracy had been in a coma for a decade: allowed to lapse by political parties, and then physically blown up by the Maoists during the war.

Elected local councils were dissolved in July 2002 by the Sher Bahadur Deuba government because he didn't want the UML to continue its local dominance. The VDCs, DDCs and municipalities remain without elected representatives to this day.

The popular perception in the media might put constitution drafting at the top of the agenda, but results of the Himalmedia nationwide public opinion survey this week reveals that there is extreme dissatisfaction among people about the prolonged absence of democracy at the local level.

The demand for elected local bodies is so strong that nearly half the respondents have asked for immediate elections to the local bodies. This is quite remarkable considering that of those polled, half feel that local representatives of the political parties are as bad as their leaders at the centre.

When Gyanendra Shah conducted local elections in February 2006, most of the people refrained from voting. This was during the war, and many felt it was a sham election anyway. But ever since 1990, Nepalis have shown repeatedly that they have tremendous faith in democracy and freedom. But the general mood of the 4,000 or so respondents surveyed last week shows that when the country is being held hostage by vested political interests at the top, people want accountability from their leaders, at least those at the grassroots.

The absence of elected representatives at the local bodies has not only stalled the local development works, it has also bred corruption. The all-party mechanism, which is entrusted with overseeing local affairs in the interim period, has become an exclusive club of powerful three parties, discredited for its lack of transparency and accountability.

The survey reveals that people are largely unaware about the all-party mechanism, and most still go to their old elected representatives for any local matters. Those who have heard about it are largely dismissive of the all-party mechanism, and the sense is that they are no substitute for elected representatives.

Survey findings show that people in general feel that the education and health services at the local level have improved significantly, but they give little credit to the all-party mechanism that has been involved in local governance since 2006. This improvement is obviously a cumulative effect of targeted government programs, surge in skilled manpower in the villages due to programs like CTEVT, consistent NGO presence in education and health and the foreign aid pouring in the country as a drive to meet Millennium Development Goals. Besides, the penetration of media in the remote areas appears to have also contributed to raising awareness level on importance of health and education.

Local bodies are vital to all democracies, and their continuous absence in Nepal has weakened the institution at its roots. The political parties who speak of institutionalising democracy seem to have forgotten its fundamentals: the foundations have to be laid before the structure can be erected. The Himalmedia poll also shows that although the political landscape looks messy, people are very clear about the way forward: they want local elections to kick-start local development again as it did in the early 1990s. They also overwhelmingly want the parties to stop politicising development at the district and village level.

If the local perception is that health, education and transportation have improved in the past five years, imagine how much more progress we'd have made with more accountable elected leaders at the local level.

There is nothing in the interim constitution that prevents us from going for local elections. There is never a wrong time for democracy.

Read also:
Nation's pulse
Few surprises, EDITORIAL
Netas, are you listening?, DAMBAR K SHRESTHA in JHAPA

1. Arthur
The article does not explain the graphic table. I am guessing that the rows show different aspects of possible improvement and the three columns from left to right show the % of the survey who believed that a particular aspect has improved, stayed the same or got worse.

This would be interesting information if the survey was not completely discredited by the obvious bias in who was surveyed to result in more support for Congress than for Maoists and 76% opposition to federalism as per Nepali Times own prejudices.

As for local elections this sounds reasonable. But wouldn't the result be a complete wipe out for UML and Kangresis, making it even more difficult for those parties to agree on a constitution followed by national and provincial elections? They have already shown that they want to just cling on for as long as possible.

2. Soni
Just want to copy paste some of the old articles. If you will permit me in reference to elections that you talk about, or rather a lack of it. -----------------------------------

Here in Nepal, the king has failed the test of performance legitimacy. Over the year of his absolute rule, the economy has gone into a tailspin, society is on the verge of disintegration and the polity has all but surrendered to the military. The dark days of long blackouts are back in Nepal after nearly a decade. For the first time since the insurgency began, the spectre of failed state now haunts even most optimistic Nepalis.
To his credit, the king admitted in his Wednesday speech that history is the judge of the people's conduct during times of crisis. Someday when a free and independent historian will sit down to appropriate the blame for the murder of Bijay Lal Das (a restless youth who wanted to be mayor of Janakpur), it's very unlikely that he will assign all the guilt upon Chairman Prachanda alone. The confrontational politics of Chairman Gyanendra has also deepened the country's crisis even if he doesn't seem to see it that way.
The seven-party alliance now needs to review its strategy. It must accept that one in every five voters did turn out despite threats to personal safety. The Nepali bourgeois relatively safe in urban clusters is still indifferent to the concerns of democracy, freedom of the press and human rights. Their biggest concern is still whether there is gasoline for their motorcycles and the availability of fresh vegetables. This apathy is a manifestation of the collective failure of the political parties. Unless they tap this dormant force, they can't revive the middle ground in Nepali politics.
Now, I have no intention of writing anymore about this article regardless of the provocation. But would you not be a kind enough to answer the two questions.

A) If an election can be attempted in the middle of a raging murderous  insurgency, the why can't it be held under the guises of the keeper's of democracy who had an unquestioned writ over the country in excess of five years.

B) Please tell me the fairy tale about the difference between the present dispensation in Nepal, and the governance of brother Muammar Qaddhafi of Libya? 

3. Saroj

Prashant Jha on local polls. 

4. Arthur
Saroj #3, thanks for the interesting link to much more thoughtful article by Prashant Jha on local politics.

He mentions this argument:

"having elections right now is dangerous as it will exacerbate conflict, and further hamper inter-party relations at the top."

This seems to be a major factor in the preference for postponing national elections.

Is it true that the result of local elections would be greater bitterness between the parties and more difficulty agreeing on a national settlement?

If so, it may well outweigh the arguments he mentions in support of local elections now, such as the need for checks and balances and accountability to reduce corruption.

My prejudice would be to just let the losers get more bitter and simply throw them out. But that is from the comfortable position of a foreigner who cannot evaluate how much real danger there is of military rule and civil war.

Also I would have thought that "multi-party" corruption would actually be more difficult than "winning party" corruption so the results of clear winners and losers could be less accountability and less checks and balances.

Certainly there is no sign that the publishers of Nepal Times would ever accept the results of losing elections whether local or national. But I don't see much sign of them being keen on military rule either, so I really don't understand why they are pushing for local elections.

Could they really believe their own propaganda that the winners of local elections would not be Maoists? Or did they have in mind that it would still be possible for the Home Ministry to hold old style rigged elections to exclude Maoists?

The idea was promoted together with hysterical opposition to a Maoist Home Minister.

Now that it would be much harder to rig local elections against the Maoists, will Nepali Times quietly forget about it for a while?

5. Naresh
There is no clear option ahead of us. We can still make one.
The CA, as expected from the beginning, had been the malicious eye of the unelected chatterbox (anagrammatically, PK Oil and KM Panel and the likes), some busybody, quixotic interferer, and some conspiracy-loomers like former royalists.  So the blame for the constitution, for now or for coming years should be laid for these three main groups.
Your data doesn't make sense. Why should it? Such variable come and go, especially in this world of information hangovers. The wise would rather strive to pace the reasoned auspices, the real potential that can be tapped. Anyway, the marked changes would be inevitable once we garner the points of a cute, sexy constitution (be she the femme-fatale for us all, we Nepalese). Constitution alone is the panacea would be wrong again but precedence matters. So it would be wisest of the moves once we know that the over-buzz of constitution is unjustified. History, especially the times of English and French Revolutions, shows us that the bad is preferable to worst. For instances, the putsch to away Royals by Cromwell paved the way to stronger monarchy and bled the unintended blood in many dimensions then, and the Guillotine gave Nepolean to become a self-appointed emperor. One shouldn't be an expert to know that wars and tumults do more harm, and calmness is the best option.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)