By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On May 14, 2017, after an interregnum of 20 years, the first round of local level elections were conducted in 34 Districts of Province Nos. 3, 4 and 6, to elect representatives in 283 local level institutions, including four metropolitan cities, one sub-metropolitan city, 92 municipalities and 186 rural municipalities. 71 per cent voters took part in these elections. The last local elections in Nepal were held in May 1997.
Notwithstanding a few incidents of disruption and violence in some Districts, voting concluded peacefully and in a free and fair manner. One Nepali Congress (NC) cadre died in Police firing during a clash with cadres of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), in the Melung Rural Municipality of Dolakha District. Another person was killed in Police firing when cadres of the Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) tried to capture ballot boxes in the Naraharinath Rural Municipality of Kalikot District; three others were injured in the incident. Separately, a CPN-UML activist was beaten to death with a stick inside an under-construction house in the Pipalbhanjyang area of Dhading District. In the meantime, in the Nilkantha Municipality of Dhading District, four persons were injured in a clash between NC and CPN-UML activists.
The second phase of local level elections for the remaining 41 Districts in Provinces 1, 2, 5 and 7 was supposed to be held on June 14, 2017, after the number of local levels in the Tarai region had been revised. However, discussions between Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and leaders of the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN), at the former’s official residence in Kathmandu on May 15, 2017, resulted in a stalemate, as RJPN leaders argued that the party could not participate in the second phase of elections unless their demands were addressed. RJPN was formed on April 20, 2017, by merging six prominent Madhesi parties, including the Tarai Madhes Democratic Party (TMDP), Sadbhavana Party (SP), National Madhes Socialist Party (NMSP), Madhesi People’s Rights Forum-Republican (MPRF-R), Tarai Madhes Sadhbhavana Party (TMSP) and Federal Sadhbhavana Party (FSP), The Madhesi parties have been demanding an amendment to the Constitution adopted on September 20, 2015, changing the demarcation of Districts and constituencies before the holding of local level elections.
Once again, on May 17, 2017, RJPN leaders met Prime Minister Dahal and NC President Sher Bahadur Deuba separately and urged them to create a conducive environment for the second phase of local polls. Accusing the Government of not showing sufficient sincerity in the fulfillment of their demands, RJPN announced a boycott of the second phase of the local polls on May 26, 2017. The party also unveiled a series of protest programs with the aim to disrupt the polls slated for June 14. Frustrated, the cadres of RJPN staged a baton rally at Gaur of Rautahat District on May 28, 2017, to protest the scheduled second round, claiming that the local bodies had not been formed in proportion to the ethnic division of populations and the Constitution needed to be amended.
Meanwhile, speaking at the anniversary celebration programme of Janakpur, the capital of Dhanusa District on May 21, 2017, Prime Minister Dahal noted “The Constitution has institutionalized many achievements of past political struggles. There are still some issues to be addressed, and successfully conducting the local level election is the current struggle. As the first phase of local polls has gone well, it’s now the duty of all forces that support and seek change to ensure that the second phase is also held successfully.” On the same day, Prime Minister Dahal talking to media persons in Janakpur, observed that the elections in Madhes would be like a festival, as more votes would be cast in Madhes as compared to the Hill areas, as the Madhesi people were eager to participate in the elections. The Prime Minister also gave an assurance that the elections would address some of the demands of the Madhes people, while other demands would be addressed through constitutional amendments.
Significantly, a Cabinet meeting held at Prime Minister Dahal’s residence in Baluwatar, Kathmandu, on May 23, 2017, decided to increase the number of local levels in the Tarai region by 22. The Cabinet decided to increase three local levels each in Sarlahi, Nawalparasi, Rupandehi and Kapilvastu; two each in Sunsari and Rautahat; and one each in Saptari, Parsa, Dhanusha, Bara, Kailali and Banke Districts. With this, the total number of local levels in the country reached 766 (existing 744 + newly created 22). The Cabinet also decided to upgrade Biratnagar and Birgunj sub-metropolitan cities to metropolitan cities, and to designate 24 rural municipalities as municipalities. Among the rural municipalities that were upgraded, 11 were in Rautahat; three in Mahottari; two each in Jhapa, Rupandehi and Banke; and one each in Siraha, Dhanusha, Bara and Kailali Districts.
On May 29, 2017, in an effort to bring the Madhes-based parties on board, the Government re-scheduled the local polls to June 23, 2017. However, on May 30, 2017, the representatives of the Muslim community submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Dahal demanding to reconsider the rescheduled date of the second round, as the Muslim’s festival of Eid ul Fitr was falling on the election date. Consequently, the Government rescheduled the second phase to June 28, 2017.
However, the main opposition party, the CPN-UML, in a Press Release issued after the meeting of the party’s standing committee on May 17, 2017, urged the Government and the Election Commission (EC) to promptly hold the second round of polls. The party further stated that the proposed amendments to the Constitution were not acceptable, and that changes in the local bodies would certainly create confusion. Further, CPN-UML obstructed proceedings in Parliament on May 26, 2017, demanding that the Government roll back its decision to add 22 local levels in the Tarai Districts. Once again, on May 31 and June 1, 2017, CPN-UML obstructed parliamentary proceedings, demanding the vote count for Bharatpur Metropolitan City in Chitwan District be resumed at the earliest. On May 29, 2017, the District Election Office, Chitwan had halted the count shortly after cadres of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-Maoist Centre) deputed to assist the count tore up ballot papers. Later, Chief Returning Officer Kabi Prasad Neupane found that, of the 2,897 votes cast in Ward Number 19, as many as 1,809 votes had already been counted. 998 papers had been torn in such a way that they could not be counted. 90 were found to have been completely destroyed.
Separately, arguing that the haphazard creation of more local units could collapse the federal set up and prompt provincial and central Governments to withdraw rights given to local units, Balananda Paudel, Coordinator of the Local Body Restructuring Commission (LBRC) warned, on May 25, 2017, “More local units mean more burden on taxpayers as they have to pay more tax for local governments. Similarly, while local governments are becoming unfeasible as their resources are limited, local governments in small area become less efficient as they cannot gain economy of scale in service delivery.” The Commission had recommended that the Government form 719 units, as against the 744 established.
In the meantime, in a crucial development signaling an emerging maturity in Nepalese politics, there was a change of guard at Kathmandu. As per the “gentleman’s agreement” between the NC and CPN-Maoist Centre before the formation of the Coalition Government in August 2016, Prime Minister Dahal announced his resignation from the Premiership on May 24, 2017, paving the way for the election of a new NC Prime Minister. On June 3, 2017, proposed by Dahal, NC President Sher Bahadur Deuba filed his nomination at the Parliament Secretariat for the post of Prime Minister. His candidacy was supported by NC senior leader Ram Chandra Paudel, Nepal Democratic Forum Chairman Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar, Prem Bahadur Singh of Samajbadi Janata Party, Kumar Khadka of Akhanda Nepal Party and Jayadev Joshi of CPN-United. The election for the new Prime Minister was supposed to take place in the Parliament at 11:00 am on June 4, 2017, but this did not happen, as Speaker Onsari Gharti Magar adjourned the House till 1:00pm of June 6, 2017, as the main opposition party, CPN-UML, which has been stalling House proceedings over the Bharatpur vote counting, sought two days for a negotiated settlement.
It is to Dahal’s credit that he successfully conducted the first phase of local elections on May 14, despite multiple hiccups and hurdles. Though this is just the beginning, the completion of the first phase after two decades without elections, put an end to the uncertainty surrounding the three tier elections that are to be concluded within the stipulated date of January 21, 2018, and the implementation of the new Constitution before the transformed Parliament automatically dissolves after this deadline.
Nevertheless, CPN-UML, which is seeking to consolidate its ultra-nationalist image, is bound to oppose the Constitution Amendment Bill ceding the Madhesi demands, and can be expected to play the spoil sport; blocking Government attempts to reorganize grassroots units in the Tarai region in proportion to the population. While there are some positives in Nepal’s politics, the fractious relations of the past are far from settled.
* S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management