Municipal elections Challenges and implications

Birendra P Mishra

In his New Year message the King has extended his best wishes to all Nepali citizens for their happiness, good health and prosperity. He has also shown the road map of gradual restoration of representative governance in the kingdom by commanding the Election Commission (EC) to conduct municipal elections within the year 2062 BS to activate the democratic process, which has remained suspended for about three years now. As a matter of fact, he has cautioned the EC not to delay the activating process in the prevailing improved situation. It seems that the King has ordered the elections by using the power of the government in accordance with the local body election process law of 2048 that authorises the government to inform the EC after publishing in the gazette the vacancies caused in the local bodies to be filled through elections.

Now, the EC has two options before it. First, it should declare the date of election along with a detailed programme of polling and get prepared on war footing for conducting the elections.

It has to use last year’s electoral rolls lying with it for polling. But, it seems difficult for the EC to conduct elections before the rains start. It is running short of time. Moreover, it cannot hurry, as it may have to go in for some changes in the related laws to hold the elections. It has to take some serious decisions, such as the role of Chief District Officers as Returning Officers keeping in view the experiences of the last local body elections. Secondly, the EC may chalk out a programme to hold the elections in coming October or November on the basis of the newly prepared electoral rolls for which the first phase of the process, for example the registration of voters, has already been started by the EC from the first of the month of Baisakh.

The EC must be in a dilemma. Either it should decide to go in for the elections in October-November when it may have ample time at its disposal to conduct the elections or to violate the King’s directive — not to delay in activating the democratic process in view of the improving law and order situation. To hold the elections before the rainy season appears impossible. It is significant to note here that in the month of March 2004 (Falgun 2060) the King had called for starting the process of holding parliamentary elections during the last Nepali calendar year (2061 BS). But, his pious wish was not fulfilled by the government of that period. Most probably, the King has given one-year time to start the process with the anticipation that peace will prevail in the country during that period. Unfortunately, it did not happen.

Now, again the King has given one year’s time to the EC on the one hand, and has also advised it to go fast in view of the improving law and order situation in the kingdom on the other. No doubt, the army has succeeded in repulsing several attacks of the Maoists recently inflicting heavy casualties on them for which it deserves a pat on the back. But it has to establish its superiority over them, although it is claiming to have its upper hand in both eastern and western regions. The EC will face another problem in conducting the elections if major political parties decide not to participate. Nepali Congress president, G P Koirala, has refused to participate in the elections and has requested all other parties to boycott the elections. In case of major parties not participating in the election, the rest of the parties may take part making it a nominal election without any legitimacy and credibility. It may be like elections used to be conducted during party-less Panchayat system, which is definitely against the wish of the King who has been showing his unfettered commitment towards multiparty democracy.

It is said that the King (constitutional) does no wrong, but it would appear he has been ill advised. By the announcement of holding elections in 58 municipalities, it has been accepted by implication that the government has its authority only over district headquarters and towns in the kingdom confirming the claims of the Maoists that they have control over the rest of the kingdom. Significantly, the RNA has been doing its best to negate the claim. By conducting the elections, three aims are likely to be attained. First, the voters of municipalities will have their representatives and elected representatives will carry out the day-to-day business. They do not have monetary support for any development work. It is very difficult to manage financial resources currently for development as the major part of the budget is being spent on meeting military requirements, which the nation cannot afford to overlook at this critical juncture. Secondly, by conducting elections, the efficiency of the current EC and its machinery will be tested, which will be used in future parliamentary elections. Thirdly, the people will be testing the fruit of piecemeal democracy, waiting for some time more for full-course democracy. No doubt, an election has a vital role to play in any democracy. But it cannot be made a substitute for democracy. It is only a means of choosing representatives who have to consider the interests of the electors as supreme while taking any decisions. In a democratic set-up, voters or people are the sovereign or the masters of their own. It is possible only when there is the parliament to reflect the will of the people.

Prof Mishra is a former election commissioner