What if the local elections are not held on time?

As the government is dithering over when to hold the local elections, experts warn that deferring local polls can have consequences on federalism and can also invite constitutional crisis.

File photo/UNDP

Nishan Khatiwada

  • Read Time 3 min.

Kathmandu: Nepal’s first local elections after the promulgation of the constitution in 2015 were historic in two senses. First, the local elections were being held as per the provisions of the constitution drafted in 2015, which marked the accomplishment of the national aspiration to draft the country’s statute by the representatives elected by the people. This national aspiration had stalled since 1950.

Second, this was the first local election being held after 1997, in the gap of nearly 20 years. Local elections of 2017 were no small feats because of a couple of other reasons as well.  Various political parties based in Nepal’s Tarai had stood against this constitution. In fact, they had launched protests against the current constitution and had been demanding that it should be amended before the local elections. Actually, they had made a constitutional amendment a precondition for their participation in local elections.

And the constitution amendment was not under the power of any single party. It needed two-thirds majority of the legislature parliament (the second Constituent Assembly functioned in that capacity until the new parliament was elected as per the new constitution) to endorse any constitution amendment. Therefore, the party that led the government or the leader who led the government—whether Pushpa Kamal Dahal or Sher Bahadur Deuba—would promise and express the commitment for constitution amendment though they had no power to do anything about it.

The governments of the day, therefore, decided to hold the local polls in three phases, perhaps thinking that all the disgruntled forces would be brought around by the time of the third phase.

As such, the first phase of the local elections was held on March 13, 2017 in 34 districts of provinces 3, 4 and 6. The second phase took place on June 28 and the third phase on September 18. 

The first local elections laid the foundation for the implementation of the federal democratic constitution. Soon elections for provincial and federal assemblies were held in November and December 2017.  Thus, finally, Nepal had 753 local governments, seven provincial governments and a federal government in place.

The term of the locally-elected representatives is expiring on May 20 this year. The Election Commission has proposed local elections for April 27 in case of single-phase and on April 27 and May 5 in case of two phases.

However, as the term of the local assemblies is coming to an end, when to hold the local elections has become a matter of debate among the political parties in the ruling coalition. Maoist Center has proposed to hold federal and provincial elections first, while experts and analysts warn that deferring local elections could spell a disaster for the whole of the federal system.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba was expected to announce the dates for local as well provincial and federal level elections on Friday during his address to the nation. But he only mentioned the need of holding elections of three levels within a year. 

Experts say that the importance of local elections is obvious. Krishna Prasad Sapkota, a local governance expert, said that not only in Nepal but the world over, the government closest to the people in the local government. “Through the local governments, people can participate in the governance directly and people can feel the benefits of democracy directly,” he added.  Of the governments at three spheres, those at the local sphere are the governments at the people’s doorstep, says Neel Kantha Uprety, former Chief Election Commissioner. “A Nepali can reach out to the local governments easily but not to the federal government,” he said. 

The term of the locally-elected representatives is expiring on May 20 this year. The Election Commission has proposed local elections for April 27 in case of single-phase and on April 27 and May 5 in case of two phases.

According to him, federal democracy cannot be sustained without functioning local governments. “Federal government cannot run the local governments. Local elections, therefore, must be held on time, before the term of the current local assemblies expires.”

Constitutional experts say that failure to hold the local elections on time can lead to a constitutional crisis in the country.  “Constitutional crisis may begin from the day when the terms of the incumbent local governments expire,” said Dr Bipin Adhikari, constitutional expert and policy analyst. He points to a drafting error in Article 225 of the Constitution of Nepal which mentions that local elections should be held within the six months of the expiry of the local governments. “That six months should be six months prior to the expiry of the terms of local governments. Countries with parliamentary systems have such a practice,” he said.

What if the government goes for the elections of the federal and provincial assemblies first before the local elections? Adhikari says that Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba may dissolve the House and call for polls. “But the local elections should be held by mid-April before the terms of the local governments expire. Otherwise, it will lead to a situation of crisis,” he said.