Handle with care
- The issue of provincial boundaries should be resolved first before calling local polls
May 9, 2016-
Local elections have not been held in Nepal since 1997, one result of which has been rampant corruption in development projects. The absence of local polls has also prevented marginalised and weaker sections of society from raising their issues and protecting their interests. The Madhesis and Janajatis who are protesting against a number of discriminatory provisions in the new constitution have also been demanding early local polls. However, before the government holds local elections, some changes need to be made in the legal framework.
Issues to sort out
One, the constitution does not say that elections should be held as per the old structure of the local bodies, but the government seems to be preparing to do so. Interim local elections could have been held two years ago, but now it is too late. Interim elections will not fit the current federal setup because the constituencies may have to be redelienated. For example, Nawalparasi and Rukum districts were split into two when the provincial boundaries were demarcated. Two, if elections are held as per the old structure, will they be held at the district level too? Article 56 of the constitution says that the main structure of the country shall be federation at the state and local levels. It does not envisage any district-level bodies.
Three, the government is yet to name the provinces and their capitals. Unless these questions are resolved first, holding local polls could be a risky affair. If elections are held without resolving the question of provincial and district boundaries, it could only complicate matters because the elected representatives may become attached to their localities and later oppose their division or merger. Four, federalism issues remain among the Madhesi-Tharu and Janajati forces. If local polls are held without resolving them, there could be more chaos and conflict in the future. The Madhesi forces have already warned the government that holding local polls without addressing the issues of provincial boundaries would be an attempt to weaken federalism. If this is done, it will be interpreted as ‘forced implementation’ of the constitution. This will only put the country on the path of violence once again.
Five, Article 215 (4) of the constitution says that members of the village executive shall include four women members elected from among the village assembly and two members elected by the village assembly from the Dalit or minority communities after the local election results are released. How can this provision be applied if the polls are held under the existing structures? Therefore, the Local Election Procedure Act and Local Self-Governance Act need to ensure inclusive representation of women and other backward groups as per the new Constitution. Six, voter registration is another issue that needs to be sorted out through political consensus. The second Constituent Assembly election disfranchised almost 20 percent of Nepali voters as citizenship was made mandatory for voter registration in contravention of court orders and the political understanding reached then.
Finally, the agitating Madhesi parties and other parties outside government, including the principal opposition Nepali Congress (NC), suspect that the UML-led coalition government wants to hold local polls so that the ruling UML and the UCPN (Maoist) can tighten their grip on the state elected bodies to gain an advantage during the next general elections. They will not easily let local polls be held under the UML government. The NC believes that if local polls are held when the UML heads the government and the Maoists control the Home Ministry, the two will mobilise security to gain an electoral advantage.
Commitment to federalism
One good thing is that the government has formed a commission to determine the boundaries of the VDCs, municipalities and Special, Protected and Autonomous regions as required by the constitution. The commission has been given a one-year deadline, so why can’t we wait for a few more months for it to fix the boundaries before holding local polls? Article 303 (1) of the constitution states, “The local bodies existing at the time of commencement of this constitution shall continue to exist until the determination of the number and areas of the local level in accordance with this constitution. Similarly, Article 303 (3) says, “The official of the local bodies elected in accordance with Clause (2) shall continue to hold office until elections to the local level is held in accordance with this constitution.”
There may be a backlash against half-baked local elections which may adversely impact the positive changes that the country has made so far. Holding polls without first settling the challenges discussed above will be perceived as lack of commitment among the ruling parties to the basic principles of federalism. This will confirm the suspicions of federalists like the Madhesis and Janajatis who believe that the ruling parties are trying to hold local polls only to weaken federalism.
Hence, the government should wait awhile and first settle the question of provincial boundaries before announcing local polls. This means at least 10 months of preparations for elections under the new federal setup. If this is done, there will be two benefits. Holding all the elections consecutively will save on costs and time besides giving some level of assurance to federalists that federalism has not been weakened but rather institutionalised. The holding of elections to the three tiers of the political structure will be a milestone in implementing the new constitution by settling the political grievances of Madhesi-Tharu and other marginalised communities. It is better for the government to hold local polls after finding an amicable political solution to Madhesi-Tharu problems.
Jha is a practicing lawyer at the Supreme Court
Published: 09-05-2016 08:15