They’re big and tacky â and hugely popular among the TikTok crowd.
As Nepal heads towards local elections scheduled for May 13, the ubiquitous âview towersâ ââ(in the mountains) and âwelcome gatesâ (in the plains) are repeatedly cited in Nepali media as markers of local government debauchery. Local bodies are apparently competing to build these eye-catching structures that otherwise offer no tangible benefit to their citizens.
The functioning of local governments is subject to scrutiny before the vote.
No less than 17.7 million eligible voters will vote to elect the leaders of 753 units at the local level: six metropolises, 11 sub-metropolises, 276 municipalities and 460 rural municipalities. As people have a vested interest in local governments, there is palpable excitement in the air.
Nepal’s 2015 constitution instituted a three-tier federal structure, with each of the federal, provincial and local units operating autonomously. One of the major criticisms of the earlier unitary structure â in place since the advent of democracy in 1951 â concerned the centralization of powers and resources in Kathmandu, the national capital.
But even under the unitary dispensation, governance at the community level in Nepal was decent enough, but without the desired level of autonomy. At the top of the political hierarchy was the hereditary monarch, whose legitimacy rested on maintaining good relations with his people. For this, he cultivated local elites to rule in his name.
The Nepalese monarch had ruled with absolute authority after King Mahendra’s coup in 1960, and the partyless Panchayat system he instituted would endure for the next three decades.
âThe Nepalese monarchy was authoritarian rather than totalitarian,â said political analyst Hari Sharma. As his authority rested on his ability to connect with the grassroots, “even in the non-party system, the monarch had an interest in hearing and responding to people’s basic demands”.
After democracy was restored in 1990, the first national local elections were held in 1997. Then the Maoist rebellion began and it would be 20 years before another round of local elections could take place, this time under a new constitution that heralded a federal republic. and its three-tier system of government.
So how did local government units in Nepal, which have always been closely linked to people’s daily lives, fare under the new political regime?
âThe past five years have helped lay a solid foundation for strong and empowered local governance,â said Khim Lal Devkota, local governance researcher in Nepal. “For the first time, the rights focused on Singha Durbar [the federal secretariat] were delegated to the base.
Citing polls that show people’s greater trust in local governments compared to their trust in provincial or federal governments, Devkota said there was plenty of room for optimism.
For example, although the federal government has been solely responsible for managing the COVID-19 pandemic, municipalities and rural municipalities have done most of the work, building isolation centers, providing medication in a timely manner and calling infected people regularly. Without functioning local governments, deaths from the pandemic could be far higher than the 12,000 recorded so far.
In fact, the positives are not lacking.
People who previously had to travel hundreds of miles to get even basic services like citizenship and death certificates can now get them on their doorstep.
Women and marginalized communities are empowered. Women now occupy more than 41% of positions at the local level. Many local governments have offered scholarships to children from marginalized communities, increasing their school enrollment rates.
âDuring these five years, we have gained invaluable experience,â said Prabha Baral, a female mayor of Rapti Municipality in western Nepal.
When asked if she would run for mayor again in the next local elections, Baral replied: âThey say you shouldn’t repeat the same rank. Now I consider myself ready for greater responsibilities.
Yet Baral is a rare female mayor in Nepal. In the 2017 elections, men won 98% of the positions of mayors and presidents; women won 91% of MP positions.
In Nepal, each political party must nominate candidates of different sexes for the two highest positions at the local level. In a still largely patriarchal society, most men were chosen as the main candidates while women were chosen to work as their deputies.
Local bodies are also highly politicized, and constant bickering between chiefs and their deputies â partly because male leaders often question the competence of their deputies â has hampered service delivery. Widespread corruption is another obstacle to their proper functioning.
Chandra Kishore, a seasoned journalist, points to other problems in the new local outlets.
âThe âsmall is beautifulâ concept should inform local governance. But our local units are too big in terms of population,â he said, citing Nepal’s 22 most densely populated lowland districts. “This in turn has hurt service delivery and reduced minority representation.”
He recounts how the charged local political climate, mostly dominated by caste elites, has divided families and sown social discord.
But this is only one aspect of the larger story of local government over the past five years.
Hom Narayan Bhandari, president of the National Association of Rural Municipalities, said that even with their limited powers and resources, local bodies have done incredible work. “Remember, five years ago we had to start from scratch and build everything ourselves, starting with the houses for our offices,” he said.
The new constitution tasked local units with a range of tasks, but the federal government was reluctant to equip local units accordingly, Bhandari complained. For example, most local offices are understaffed in the absence of laws to hire civil servants and police.
Local leaders also resent having to âbegâ the federal government for more power and resources.
âFederal officials act as if they are doing us a favor. That’s not how a federal system works,â Bhandari said.
Then there are the jurisdictional disputes between local elected officials. To give an example, the vice-presidents of rural municipalities chair meetings to resolve disputes at the local level. But in the absence of a clear demarcation of duties, chairs often interfere in these meetings.
But it is not just local leaders who are to blame. There are also signs of immaturity on the part of the electorate.
Radheshyam Adhikari, a leader of the Nepali Congress, the country’s ruling party, said that although local representatives work closely with the people, more often than not their competence and local commitment matter less than their political affiliation.
“We have a highly politicized society,” he said. “In 70% of cases, people will blindly vote for the candidates of their favorite parties.”
Elections have also become costly. About 70 billion Nepalese rupees ($600 million) was spent in the last local elections. Although the Electoral Commission has this time set a spending ceiling for the election campaign – 750,000 rupees for candidates for mayor and deputy mayor – the actual spending could be much higher than this figure. The poorest potential candidates are expelled from the field.
Equally worrying, this time around, the representation of women and minorities could drop if political parties jointly fight the elections by forming coalitions, as seems likely. While a party must field leadership and deputy candidates of different genders, the same rule does not apply to a coalition of parties.
But whoever is elected on May 13, there will necessarily be an improvement in the functioning at the local level.
Health and education outcomes at the community level continue to improve. The five-year experience of local bureaucracies will also be useful in developing better policies.
To increase their accountability, a digital system is being developed to track the work of local governments in real time.
Fiscal federalism expert Devkota believes that as many politicians have come to view local politics as a stepping stone to national politics, competition between local bodies will intensify, further improving the quality of their work – and not only on the construction of observation towers. This, in turn, will increase pressure on the federal government to enact laws in a timely manner and to adequately fund and hold accountable local agencies.
“Our local units have stumbled in some areas,” Devkota said. âYet they have also made great strides in other areas. I choose to see the glass half full.
The series of observation towers and construction of welcome gates will not stop. But given the novelty of the federal project in Nepal and the many constraints that local representatives have had to face, it would be unfair to see these vain projects as the only measure of their success.