Bill Clinton was president the last time Nepal held legitimate local elections. Those terms of office expired eight years ago, and the country’s 75 districts, 60 municipalities and 4,000 towns and villages have had no governments since. Staff and bureaucrats have kept offices open in some places, but most local administrations have simply ground to a halt.
The Maoist insurrection was the primary reason for postponed and cancelled local elections, though central-government incompetence played a part. The palace called local elections in February 2006 during the king’s period of absolute rule, but most parties boycotted the polls and the international community rejected the results. Protests over the elections grew into the popular movement that toppled royal rule two months later.
With an elected government now in charge in Kathmandu, there is a fresh effort to fill the local offices.
New elections are considered too costly and a distraction from the process of constitution-writing, so the parties have agreed to share out the local offices among themselves. That causes another problem. The political value and influence of the posts is huge, as it would be in any country. But in Nepal’s patronage-based political system the parties’ top leaders will also gain personally from having all those jobs to give out.
Negotiations have long been stuck over the crucial question of how the posts are to be allocated among the parties. The UML, which won about 60 percent of the seats in the last local elections, had lobbied for dividing them by the results of that election. (Their intransigence on this sank earlier attempts to agree on local appointments.) After the April election that position became untenable, and the UML and NC are now pressing for using the proportional results from April as a basis. That system would share the seats roughly evenly among the three major parties.
The Maoists insist that local seats should be divided based on April’s first-past-the-post results, which they won handily. Both parties make arguments in their favor. The Maoists say that a direct election is closest to a local poll, while the UML claim that using the proportional, party-preference vote is fairer since this is a party-based issue. The arguments are just smokescreens: the reality is that a huge political plum is at stake. Using the first-past-the-post results, the Maoists would control about half of local government seats. By the proportional results their share would be fewer than one third of the posts, with the loss being made up mostly by NC and UML appointees.
The political standoff over the matter has dragged on to the point of urgency, and a new four-member task force is working on a deal. Fortunately there is obvious middle ground. The parties can agree to use the representation in the Constituent Assembly as a rule for allocating local offices. The assembly’s makeup reflects both parts of the April poll and should ultimately be acceptable to all.
It will be hard for the parties to concede their own interests in favor of the national interest. But the essence of modern democracy according to one of its main inventors, John Adams, is “compromise, compromise and compromise.” Quick agreement on the local-government impasse would be a good for the country and good practice for its leaders.
John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.