Posted by : Sourav Dahal
The upcoming local polls and coalition talks made headlines throughout the month of April. Almost all parties, in both the ruling alliance and the opposition, were occupied with attempts at forging election coalitions. While parties have reached a consensus to contest the election together with their respective allies in most of the local bodies, there also have been interparty and intraparty disputes regarding the same. In the upcoming polls, a total of 753 local units requires 35221 local representatives – and 1506 mayors, deputy mayors, chairs and vice-chairs, and 33,715 office bearers are to be elected.
|April 1 – April 3||Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba visited India.|
|April 8||Nepal Rastra Bank’s Governor Maha Prasad Adhikari was suspended.|
|April 9||Election Code of Conduct came into effect.|
|April 11||Ruling coalition parties issued a joint appeal with a vow to cooperate in the election.|
|April 16||The ruling alliance reached a consensus on the framework to select candidates.|
|April 17||UML decided to collaborate with two parties, Rashtriya Prajatrantra Party Nepal and Nepal Pariwar Dal, on polls.|
On April 11, the ruling coalition issued a joint appeal urging their local leaders and cadres to forge an election alliance. Back in March, the Nepali Congress – the biggest party of the ruling alliance – had decided to leave the election coalition for the upcoming local election at the local discretion. At the centre, there remained a broad consensus among top leaders of the five-party ruling alliance to contest the local polls together, and these parties reached an agreement on the framework of candidate selection on April 16. The alliance then successfully divided both mayoral and deputy mayoral posts for all metropolitan and sub-metropolitan cities amongst each other; however, this required sustained efforts and interventions from leaders at the centre. In most places other than these metropolitan and sub-metropolitan cities, the ruling alliance attempted to bring the election coalition into effect throughout the month. Only in about twelve of seventy-seven districts, the ruling alliance could reach a consensus for collaboration in all local bodies. In quite a few districts, the electoral alliance of ruling parties couldn’t materialize at all, and the Nepali Congress decided to contest on its own.
On the opposition front, CPN UML has forged an election alliance with two fringe parties – the newly formed Rashtriya Prajatantra Party Nepal which demands that Nepal be reinstated as a Hindu nation and the next, Nepal Pariwar Dal. In a few districts, CPN UML has also collaborated with other parties in the opposition – Loktrantik Samajbadi Party, and People’s Progressive Party among others. While UML leaders claim in public that their party can take on the ruling alliance on its own, UML’s desperate bid to find election partners reveals that, with the ruling alliance contesting polls together, an election coalition has now become more of a need than a choice.
The ruling alliance has met with challenges to forge an election coalition primarily because a coalition between five different political parties at every local level is a difficult endeavour in itself. Each party has numerous aspirants for a limited number of posts, and a coalition between five different parties means that a consensus has to be reached for a single candidate from a pool of even larger sets of aspirants. To add to this, while in overall an electoral alliance could be helpful for all member parties of the coalition, not all parties can benefit equally from the alliance at every local level. This is because some parties have a stronger foothold in certain places, and sharing seats in those areas with others would be counterproductive. This is why the Nepali Congress – the biggest party of all among the five – backed out of an election alliance in several districts. And primarily for the same reason, the Shekhar Koirala faction of the Nepali Congress tried to push the party in contesting elections with no coalition whatsoever.
The election coalitions between parties that neither share a common ideology nor policies mark the continuation of a trend in which political parties have reduced elections to mere strategic and number games. The true essence of elections in a democracy – contestation between ideas and policies – continue to remain sidelined.
These election coalitions for the local polls, however, reflect a paradox – while local bodies are envisioned to decentralize the state structure efficiently, the role of the central command of each party in pushing their local units to abide by the centre’s decisions is, in its very essence, against the spirit of decentralization. For federalism to function smoothly, it is imperative that political parties should adapt to the decentralized state structure, and provide their provincial and local units with autonomy in the decision-making process. To make the matter worse, these electoral coalitions are also largely driven by the motivations and interests of the party’s top leaders.
The Nepali Congress, through an electoral alliance for the local polls, seeks to save the ruling alliance till the next round of provincial and federal elections – and by doing so, aims to return back as the largest party in the federal and provincial parliaments. This is evident from the fact that the Nepali Congress’s centre forced its local units – particularly in Chitwan and Pokhara among other districts– to ally with other parties, despite those units going to great lengths to contest the local polls on their own. Other parties of the ruling alliance are also prioritizing election coalitions more so in preparation for the next cycle of provincial and federal elections than for the forthcoming local polls. The same is true for the opposition parties.
The central level of each party intervening in the functioning and role of their local units herald difficult days ahead for the efficient practices of federalism. With local polls approaching, problems and agendas of the local levels should have been in the focus but the coalition talks at the centre have overshadowed all those issues of local bodies.
On April 8, Nepal Rastra Bank’s governor Maha Prasad Adhikari was suspended after the government decided to form a three-member investigation committee labelling serious charges of leaking sensitive information and incompetence against him. According to Section 22 and sub-section 5 of Nepal Rastra Bank Act-2002, a governor can be suspended if they fail to do the due diligence, harm the country’s banking and if they are found to act dishonestly or with mala fide intention among other reasons. However, on April 19, the Supreme Court issued an interlocutory interim order, responding to the petition filed by governor Adhikari, and asked the government to not implement the suspension.
The government’s move to suspend the governor was criticized by the opposition, and also by some leaders of the ruling alliance itself. They claimed that the government, specifically, the finance minister, attempted to shift the blame on the governor for the ensuing economic crisis. Nepal is getting mired in an economic crisis as the foreign reserves are dwindling and remittances have been low ever since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The opposition UML has ratcheted up its attack against the government with an accusation that PM Deuba’s government has led the country toward economic uncertainty.
The economic crisis was long in the making, and the Oli-led government is equally responsible for this, but Oli and his acolytes are trying to use this crisis as an election strategy against the ruling alliance. The government, on the other side, instead of seeking constructive solutions, has attempted to shift the blame on the governor. Although it is within the prerogative of the government to take action against the governor, the investigation committee is accused to have consisted of members loyal to the finance minister Sharma which further adds to doubts over the credibility of the move. It was reported that while PM Deuba was keen to take action against the finance minister Janardan Sharma, he finally backed off fearing such a move could escalate tensions, on the eve of the local polls, with a member party of the ruling alliance – CPN Maoist. At the broader level, this entire controversy is a microcosm of a trend in which autonomous and semi-autonomous bodies are paralyzed by the executive with the motive of serving parties’ or leaders’ interests.