Nepal: Local Body Elections Amid Uncertainty

16 Mar, 2017    ·   5243

Pramod Jaiswal assesses the build up to and the prospects of Nepal's upcoming local body elections

Pramod Jaiswal
Pramod Jaiswal
Senior Fellow, China Research Programme (CRP)
Nepal's major political parties - the Nepali Congress (NC); the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML); and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Centre) - have agreed to hold local body elections on 14 May. Nepal will have a democratically elected local body after two decades if the election takes place as decided. However, Madhesi political parties have opposed it. But, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ has stated that local body elections will be held under any circumstances. What are the possibilities of elections taking place on the announced date? What does the future course of Nepali politics look like? As per the provisions of the newly promulgated constitution, Nepal needs to hold three tier elections (local, provincial and federal) by January 2018. 

The major political parties, especially the main opposition CPN-UML, demanded that the government call for the elections and rejected the idea of constitutional amendments. Conversely, Madhesi parties demanded that the government first address their concerns regarding Madhesi, Janajati and Tharus through constitutional amendments and then announce election. Meanwhile, the Election Commission of Nepal had asked the government to agree on election dates at the earliest for all three election processes to be completed within the stipulated time. The government was compelled to announce the poll dates due to these circumstances, in addition to the mounting pressure from the main opposition CPN-UML. The CPN-UML did not allow the House to discuss the Bill to amend the Constitution though the government had promised the Madhesi parties that they would announce the poll date only after addressing the issues of the Madhesi, Janajati and Tharu communities. 

Reaction of the Madhesi Parties 
Following the announcement of the election date, Madhesi parties announced a two-week long protest in Madhes in the form of torch processions and general strikes. They declared that they would not partake in the election and would instead foil the process unless their demands were addressed through a constitutional amendment. However, the Prachanda-led administration in Kathmandu has assured the Madhesi leaders that he would move ahead with the amendment tabled in the parliament. Several other political parties including Madhesis tabled their proposals - which contradict each other - making the amendment process complex. Hence, it near impossible to satisfy the Madhesis' demands. 

Will the Elections Take Place? 
Holding the election without the participation of Madhesi parties is not possible and neither does it serve any purpose. It will further increase the rift among the Madhesi parties and the government. There will be chaos, and increase the chances of serious clashes among the people of different communities amounting to massive instances of ethnocentric violence that will worsen the situation. As experienced in the past, it can further escalate with the mobilisation of security forces and the Nepal Army. There will be another possibility of disturbance at the India-Nepal border like the one that took place in 2015-16, in which Madhesi parties imposed a 135-days long blockade to force the government to address their demands. Frustration among the Madhesi, Tharus and Janajatis is already rising. The youth are getting radicalised and the voices of separatists such as CK Raut's group are becoming stronger. 

Looking Ahead 
With the announcement of election date, the demands of the main opposition, CPN-UML, has been realised. They need to soften their stance on the amendment bill so that an atmosphere conducive for elections would be created. They might do so as the Madhesi parties have tepidly warned that they would either boycott the polls or would create a disturbance if the polls are held before the endorsement of the amendment bill. The CPN-UML is also highly confident and is in rush for election. As per their calculations, they are expecting a massive upsurge in their support base because of their anti-Indian and ultra-nationalist image consolidated recently. This can be another factor that will push the CPN-UML to support the amendments and to hold election in a timely manner. In order for a free, fair and credible election to take place peacefully in the current situation, the government should create an environment conducive for Madhesi parties to join the process by addressing their demands through a constitutional amendment. 

Postponing the inevitable will only complicate the issues. It is in Nepal’s interest to once and for all resolve the issues through the amendment. The local body elections will set the stage for the other two elections - provincial and federal - that are crucial elements for a real and complete implementation of Nepal's newly promulgated constitution. The nation will again face constitutional hurdles if it fails to hold all the three elections before the January 2018 deadline. However, at present, conducting election across the country is not an easy task. 

The government is yet to decide on some important issues such as: whether the polls will be held in the older framework of the local units or in the new local units as fixed by the Local Bodies Restructuring Commission. Similarly, major political parties have demanded that the local body elections should be ‘party-less’, i.e., to be contested without the banner of their parties. However, all the political parties have to endorse it for that to become a reality. 

It is expected that all political parties would exercise prudence and resolve the issues so that election can take place on time, which will in turn fill-up the offices in the local bodies that have remained vacant for decades.