Results of the local body elections held in three of Nepal’s seven provinces on May 14 are still trickling in, but the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the Nepali Congress (NC) will be reasonably satisfied with their performance. These elections were mostly held in the hill areas, with the second phase scheduled for June 14, in which the Madhesi parties — that are still demanding amendments to the Constitution related to state restructuring — are expected to participate. Local body elections are being held after a gap of 20 years, which saw epochal changes in Nepal’s polity without much development to show on the ground. These polls are to elect representatives in the ward, village, municipal and metropolitan councils that will have decentralised decision-making powers related to local revenue generation and spending, along with the formulation of laws in this regard. These councils are similar to the village development committees of the past, but have far more powers as self-governing units envisaged in the new Constitution. For too long, Nepal’s polity has been caught up with Constitution-writing and wrangling over power amid political instability. This has resulted in lack of attention to economic development leading to large-scale labour migration of Nepalis, and poor response systems to disasters such as the massive earthquake that struck two years ago. Local representation should return the focus to local development, as long as Nepal’s dominant political actors desist from turning this enhanced power into opportunities for rent-seeking and patronage.
The voter turnout of close to 71% suggests high enthusiasm for the first polls held after the promulgation of the new Constitution. The strong performance of the UML and the NC is a repeat of the mandate in the 2013 Constituent Assembly elections, in which these parties did well in the hill districts. The Maoists could not improve on their 2013 performance. At that time the Maoists were punished for their inability to provide stability and work for development, planks that had catapulted them to a dominant position in the first CA polls in 2008. Now, their finishing in the third place in the hills is a reflection of the failure of their leadership, including Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, to differentiate itself as a credible alternative to the UML and the NC. The UML’s success so far will embolden it to continue its status quoist positions on the redrawing of provincial boundaries. With Madhesi parties saying that their participation in the June 14 round of local polls is contingent upon a constitutional amendment, it remains to be seen how the NC-Maoist coalition government will respond. Working out a reasonable concession to the plains-dwellers will yield the ruling parties better support in the other provinces headed to the polls. It will also lead to greater stability and thereby a much-needed shift to economic priorities.