Oped

A central problem

  • Suspending local democracy to concentrate on national constitutional issues is undemocratic and wrong
- HEMANT R OJHA
A central problem

Jan 6, 2014-

In the name of 'national state restructuring', democracy has lost its local foundations in Nepal. Between 2008 and 2013, two elections were held for a Constituent Assembly (CA) and the national government but elections to local governments have not happened since 1997. Clearly, the politics of change has been hijacked by Kathmandu-centric political leaders while people in other regions and communities are deprived of their right to participate in the affairs of the state and to choose the kind of life they want.

The agenda of federalism is a legitimate response to the history of centralisation and the marginalisation of diverse communities. But Nepal is taking the wrong path to federalism. The local sphere of democracy has been suspended and political decision-making is still only happening at the central level. Only national and regional power mongers are involved in the politics of transition while the people's role is limited to choosing them every five years. This anti-local transition has been guided by false assumptions shared by all the dominant players in the current politics of transition.

Why federalism first?

The first problematic assumption is that during transitional politics, the agenda of local democracy has to be suspended in order to fully concentrate on national constitutional issues. This is an undemocratic and feudalistic argument as it retains the past legacy of only taking decisions at the centre. In a genuine democratic transition, people must be allowed to participate simultaneously at different levels, including local democratic arenas. In the name of a national political transition, citizen's rights to self-governance at the local level cannot be withheld. Contrary to the elitist assumption, strengthening local democracy during the transition and the constitutional reform process will strengthen the quality and effectiveness of political decisions made at the national level, as the people will be concurrently involved at the local levels of politics.

The second problematic assumption holds 'federalism first, then local government'. This means that once the states are delineated, the local government agenda will automatically follow, with states making decisions about the structure of their local government systems. In many countries, including India, Indonesia and the Philippines, the local government is defined at the constitutional level and hence, is not entirely a state government issue. If the political design of the local government is left in the hands of the state government, local democratic space is likely to be squeezed by politicians seeking to tighten their political grip.

The third assumption is that development can be engineered from the top and through administrative mechanisms and hence, there is no significant cost in not having elected local government during the transition period. This has been proven wrong. The village- and district-level government units under the current non-elected and administrative arrangement have failed to perform basic functions in a satisfactory manner. Various reports claim that the misuse of resources has also escalated. Despite this, there is a continuing interest among top brass bureaucrats, national

political elites and the international donor community to continue the centrally controlled administrative structure of the local government.

NGOs cannot replace govts

The final problematic assumption is that the proliferation of NGOs in recent years can offer an alternative platform of civic participation at the local level and can raise local voices in the debate about state restructuring as well as deliver development services. As studies conducted by Jesse Ribot and others in many countries show, relying primarily on NGOs and communities, instead of elected local governments, is likely to undermine local democracy and the accountability of public authorities. While civil society engagement in development and political discourse is an important aspect, NGOs cannot replace elected local governments. In recent years, the proliferation of NGOs from international to national and the local level as service providers, political lobbyists, advocacy groups and even knowledge brokers has shadowed the agenda of local democracy in Nepal.

A particularly problematic argument within civil society circles is that the recognition of local community rights in resource governance and local development is even more democratic than empowering the local government. The reason stipulated here is that devolving power directly to smaller communities beyond local governments creates better opportunities for the effective participation of the people and thus, the creation of more effective self-governance. Following this assumption, networks of user groups in various natural resource sectors, such as forests and water, are being promoted by donors, not just as community level development agents but also as a more democratic form of local government.

While this approach has worked well at the community level, it has undermined the possibility of larger local democracy. Moreover, the community agenda has become a legitimate instrument for diverting resources away from the government and accountable local democratic institutions. This is not to suggest that community based development is wrong. Communities have done their part well and need to be strengthened further but they should not be seen as a replacement for local governments. Indeed, there is a huge governmental monitoring gap on the activities of community groups due to the lack of local governments. As a result, community groups have at times indulged in the misappropriation of resources and other forms of bad governance.

Going local

How can we move beyond this stalemate? The local democracy agenda should be at the top of the list. Electing the President or prime minister is important but it is no less important to have 800-1,000 elected mayors and councillors across the nation. The number of contentious issues on the constitutional checklist is large and it is almost impossible to take decisions on all of these at one go. So why not accept constitutional development as a process involving a series of key decisions and actions taken gradually over a period of three years? In fact, transitional politics is already moving through such steps—former king Gyanendra gave back power to national political leaders when he reinstated the parliament; the peace accord was signed and Maoists came into government; elections for the first CA were held, and so on.

The first agenda of the new CA should be to agree on the structure of local government in the country. There are plenty of experiences around the world on what form of local government can work best. Gopal Kiranti has proposed 800 local governments—this idea can work for Nepal but some homework needs to be done by an expert panel. Within three months, a local democracy structure can developed and the new CA can discuss and decide the boundaries and structure of local governance as the first element of the new constitution. The Election Commission can then hold local government elections while the CA continues to discuss and decide on other items of the constitution—including the federal states and the national government system. When such bigger issues are debated, we will also have elected local government councils, who can begin to advance their locally grounded voices into the constitutional debate.

It is thus important to restore elected local democracy when we are redesigning the national political system. This will make national political decisions more democratic and more legitimate as we will have local leaders actively contributing to national politics.

Ojha is a public policy expert

Published: 06-01-2014 08:58

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