Murari Sharma: Main lessons of local elections

Recently, Nepal has completed two phases of local elections in six provinces, covering 617 local bodies, town and village municipalities, in 67 districts. It leaves Province 2 with 127 municipalities in 8 districts for the third phase. The election result in the first two phases has imparted important, some expected and some unexpected, lessons for Nepali politics.

First, people were eager to participate in the elections. The average participation level reached 71 percent. It was only expected in view of the fact that local elections were conducted after a hiatus of two decades, during which time the local bodies were run by bureaucrats.

Second, Madheshi leaders, now organized around the Rashtriya Janata Party-Nepal, were disconnected from Madheshi voters. RJP leaders had called on the Madheshi voters to boycott the election. But the voters enthusiastically participated in the 14 Terai districts where the elections have been held in the first two phases. Voter participation in these districts was much higher than several hill districts, including Ramechhap, Dolakha, and Bhojpur. The RJP leaders had not expected it.

Third, broad-based politics triumphed sectarian identity politics, at least this time. The CPN (UML) and the Nepali Congress, which believe in broad-based politics, emerged as the largest and second largest parties from the elections winning in 276 and 226 local bodies. Among the pro-identity parties, the Maoists came a distant third with 84. The Federal Socialist Forum and Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (Democratic) bagged only 8 and 7 mayors. Other pro-identify parties did not win any mayorship at all.

Fourth, boycotting elections is a poor strategy if the majority is willing to participate in them. Sure, when King Gyanendra organized local elections before he was suspended, the mainstream political parties did not participate and those who were elected could not assume their office, proving the whole exercise a fiasco. But this time, RJP lost the opportunity to participate in the polls in the 14 Terai districts due to the boycott and some of its senior leaders and many supporters defected to other parties to take part in the ballot.

It would be apt to quote Franklin D. Roosevelt here. He has said, “In our personal ambitions we are individualists.”  All leaders pursue their personal goals and forget about the common good until the next election is due. But RJP leaders failed to read the mind of the Madheshi voters, who want better schools, hospitals, sanitation facilities and roads. So the Madheshi voters participated in the local elections and supported those political parties that could potentially deliver.

That is not to suggest that identity politics has no role to play. Such politics has relevance to energize the oppressed people to fight for their rights. But it often ends in disaster if it is not contained in time. The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests, identity politics “has troubling implications for models of the self, political inclusiveness, and our possibilities for solidarity and resistance.” It appears that Nepali voters have understood the negative implications of identity politics before their leaders and voted against them.

The CPN (UML)’s performance in the election has surprised the leaders of other political parties, particularly of the RJP. The RJP leaders had publicly vilified the UML leader KP Oli as insane needing treatment in a mental facility and dubbed his party as anti-Madhesh and anti-Madheshi. But the UML secured an unexpectedly good result in the Terai districts. According to some assessments, it is likely to repeat its impressive performance in the remaining 8 Terai districts, the heartland of Madheshi uprising since 2006, on 18 September 2017 in the elections for 127 local bodies, if the RJP demand is not met by that time.

The RJP leaders have demanded that the Constitution must be amended before the third phase of elections, something India has openly backed. But there is a serious constitutional problem to meet the demand.

A democratic constitution must protect the due process and provide equal protection all citizens. If we claim the Constitution of Nepal 2015 as democratic, then we cannot hold the first two phases of elections under the un-amended Constitution and the third phase under an amended constitution without breaching the due process and without treating the voters in the first two phases and in the third phase unequally.

So the mainstream parties and the RJP must not do anything that shreds the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Both sides sit down and move to the middle in order to preserve the sanctity of the due process and equal protection of the Constitution while keeping the door open for amending it as necessary for the greater good of the country. Though politics is a game of possibilities, the political parties should not go too far to undermine the law of the land every time they have problem or disagreement.

The local elections and their result had made this clear. But it is yet to be seen whether our leaders have understood their voters’ desire and sentiment.

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