Local polls: Why is Nepali Congress submitting to coalition partners at the cost of democracy?

Prime Minister Deuba, who is also the president of the Nepali Congress, looks bent on putting democratic values and constitutionalism at stake for the sake of keeping the coalition intact.

Nishan Khatiwada

  • Read Time 5 min.

Kathmandu: Nepal’s constitution has a clear provision regarding local elections; election laws are as clear about it. Opposition parties have upped the ante for the local elections, civil society representatives have called for timely polls. The Election Commission has already suggested the dates for local elections, in single-phase and in two phases. It is repeatedly pressuring the government to declare the date of elections. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party has also said that the local elections must be conducted on time. 

Apparently, none of this has had any impact on the ruling parties. The parties in the government look bent on delaying the local polls, come what may.

Instead of declaring the polls date as envisaged by the constitution and law, they are seeking an excuse to delay and defer it further.  And they have no reasonable justification whatsoever for deferral. 

The terms of as many as 283 local governments formed after the first phase of local elections in 2017 are coming to an end on May 20.  To keep these local units functioning and vibrant, the elections should be held by mid-May, according to constitutional experts. Experts are also expressing the fear that the failure to hold the local elections on time may lead to a constitutional crisis in the country.

Yet Nepali Congress, the party that leads the government, and other parties in the coalition are backing away. 

Serving the interests of coalition parties 

Until a few months back, Nepali Congress looked like the most powerful political force of the country amid the split of the then Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and bad governance of the KP Oli-led government. Slowly, Nepali Congress is losing its popular ground.  But the Congress insiders say that could be only one of the reasons.  The main reason why Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has remained undecided about the local polls is that he has chosen to serve the interests of Maoist chairperson Pushpa Kamal Dahal and NCP (Unified Socialist) Chair Madhav Kumar Nepal over the law of the land. 

This will prove to be damaging not only for Nepali Congress but also the entire democratic system of the country, said Guru Raj Ghimire, a Nepali Congress leader. “The spirit of the constitution is to hold the elections within five years. It will take time to form assemblies, which is why the constitution says elections should be held six months before the terms of local governments end. We must follow the constitution,” he said. 

Instead of declaring the polls date as envisaged by the constitution and law, ruling parties are seeking an excuse to delay and defer it further. Why are they doing so?

But Deuba looks bent on putting democratic values and constitutionalism at stake for the sake of keeping the coalition intact. This is the reason Deuba has turned deaf ears to the calls of some Nepali Congress leaders that he should dare to declare poll dates, even unilaterally if needed.

The reluctance of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and the ruling alliance to declare local elections dates, at the face of constitutional and legal urgency, has taken everyone by surprise.  The costs of not holding elections are already clear: Government officials, not the people’s representatives, will decide how and where resources in local levels will be utilized, effectively reversing the politics of devolution.

The unsaid reasons 

In the face of it, CPN-UML appears to be the biggest advocate of timely local polls. But in reality, as the main opposition, it has not pressured the government to declare poll dates as much as it ought to have.

That’s because in reality, the more the polls are delayed the more the UML will gain, for anti-incumbency sentiment will be high. In either way, UML will have an upper hand: If the polls take place on time, UML will take credit for making it happen, if it is deferred, it will have more to capitalize on anti-incumbent factors.  Meanwhile, UML chairperson KP Sharma Oli will find ample ground to throw back the allegations of bad governance to the incumbent ruling alliance. 

Maoist Center and Unified Socialist do not want elections on time for obvious reasons.  Maoist Center has no confidence and its whole party structure has eroded over the years. The Unified Socialist is yet to build its organization at the grassroots level.  Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal, another coalition partner in government, is not keen either because it is being threatened by the rising popularity of ‘pro-farmers’ agendas with which Janamat Party leader CK Raut is launching movements in Tarai.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Nepal, however, do not want to be seen as being opposed to the local polls. So they are trying to divert people’s attention to the federal parliament election.  They have been saying that local elections will be held after amending the conflicting laws. 

Article 225 of the Constitution has the provision that the elections should be held within six months of the tenure while the Local Elections Act has stated that the elections should be held two months before the expiry. The ruling alliance is in the mood of amending the Act to hold the local elections later.

Experts say that laws do not stop us from holding local polls on time.  “Between the law and the Constitution, the Constitution will prevail at last. The main thing is that the election date should not exceed the deadline [within six months] mentioned in the constitution,” said advocate Rishi Ram Ghimire. “It is clear that the term of the representatives is of only and only five years. Yet the ruling alliance does not seem to be willing to hold the election on time,” he added.

About the possibilities of holding all three elections–local, provincial and federal–at the same time,  Ghimire says that it will further push local polls to a distant future. “Voices are being heard about conducting all the three levels of elections at once which will push the local elections very further and bring constitutional crisis,” he said.

As a matter of fact, The Local Elections Act was formulated in 2017 to prevent the void in the local levels. Ruling parties, however, are interpreting this Act to their advantage to push the local elections to uncertainty and render local bodies government-less, thereby also imperiling the country’s federal system.

Deuba’s test 

Nepali Congress came into power as a result of the continuous breach of the constitutional values by CPN(UML) leader KP Sharma Oli, when he was the prime minister. Now, if Nepali Congress disregards the constitutional provisions to serve the vested political interests of other parties, people will question Congress leadership for a long time to come, said Guru Raj Ghimire. 

“No matter what, Deuba should remain firm about holding the elections on time if he wants to avoid questions on his morality,” said Ghimire. 

It may be recalled that Deuba bears a stigma of failing democracy by failing to hold elections and thereby providing an excuse to the then king Gyanendra Shah to usurp power on the ground of the same failure, branding him as incompetent, in 2002.

Twenty years later, Deuba is Prime Minister again in a different circumstance. At the moment, however, his leadership in the government is being tested on whether he will be able to hold the local polls on time.