Notes from the Field

Nepal’s Inability to Write Constitution Stymies Local Elections, Progress

May 25, 2011

As Nepal’s elected Constituent Assembly (CA) extended tenure ends on May 28, the fate of the nation’s constitution writing process now looks certain to be delayed further. The delay has frustratingly prolonged the political transformation process expected to be implemented through a new constitution with its provision on state restructuring, thus taking the country to the process of federalization.

Such inaction has also had a serious negative impact on local governance. The local bodies – district development committees, municipalities, and village development committees – have not had elected representatives for a decade now. In the absence of elected representatives, government employees and unelected joint political party mechanisms have been deciding on development priorities and everything else related to local governance. As a result, serious concerns have emerged over mismanagement of the local developmental and governance-related affairs, lack of transparency, and rife corruption.

There is no picture yet as to what type of local elections will be held and when. Once there is a new constitution, say, by November this year with a six-month extension of the current tenure, then the country will know when the next general elections are going to be held, which could be within six months from the time a new constitution is formed, at best. Then, in whatever way the local elections are held (with the uncertainty on the federal division and the election model yet to be negotiated for the provinces), it is going to take another six months to a year to hold elections. This leaves us at least a year from now before we have any chance for local elections – and this is an optimist’s assessment. This could well take at least two years, which is again an optimistic view.

Given that the current dismal situation of poor governance without elected representatives is likely to continue, the Local Peace Committees (LPCs) that have been operating since 2006 as a transitional, inclusive, peace-building mechanism at the local level remain critical to Nepal’s transition to peace. The LPCs, in which both political parties and civil society participate, do not have executive power to decide on development affairs, are not elected, and are formed for peace-building. During the phase of political transition from the state of armed conflict to that of stability, such as the one Nepal is undergoing, the issue of peace and governance are closely connected. The LPCs could in fact help improve the governance situation until the elected local bodies come into existence.

The concept of local peace structures was introduced to the Nepalese peace process by the Nepal Transition to Peace (NTTP) Forum of major political parties, months before the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in November 2006, and were then called Local Peace Councils. When the then Seven Party Alliance government and the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist signed the CPA in November, the Councils were considered local peace structures only, and were later re-named by a Cabinet decision as Local Peace Committees with a revised Terms of Reference. The LPCs were, right from the beginning, perceived as independent inclusive local peace structures that could work for peace locally as a body with moral, but not executive authority.

Nepal Local Peace Committees

Local Peace committee members and secretaries discuss local issues during a worshop in Pokhara. In the absense of legitimate political mechanisms that supports governance at the local level, such committees fill an important void.

Nepal’s political leadership was wise enough to buy into the idea of the local peace structure early on, knowing that the responsibility of maintaining peace in the districts rests in the hands of local actors. Leaders also realized that if there was a disturbance in any one district during the fragile transitional phase, it would risk the overall national process. The idea of LPCs was thus welcome to all major political parties including the Maoists. During the last four years that LPCs have been implemented, despite a few shortcomings, there have been some relatively successful examples of their effectiveness in many districts. Although a comprehensive assessment of the performance of the LPCs, active in 73 out of Nepal’s total 75 districts, is not available, going by media reports and data from The Carter Center that has covered some districts, the experience of the LPCs seems to be mixed. For example, they have worked well in a few districts where the political parties have a better understanding of what their purpose is. Despite all odds, according to the 2010 Carter Center report, the LPCs have managed to review and verify conflict-affected persons’ applications for interim relief as their main activity. Most LPCs are undertaking activities like supporting training to conflict-affected persons, peace education activities, training LPC members on conflict mediation, and reviewing and verifying conflict-affected persons’ applications for interim relief. The Carter Center report states that some LPCs in Bhaktapur, Surkhet, and Dhankuta districts, for example, have built local reputations for being highly active and effective. These LPCs have mediated conflicts and built good relations with civil society and local government officials.

These examples show that if the LPCs are managed well from a political level, they have strong potential to contribute to governance during the critical phase of transition from now until local elections are held. As a transitional peace-building structure, there simply is no alternative to ensuring that the LPCs function effectively in all the districts to enhance good governance in a situation where there is complete absence of legitimate political mechanism that supports governance at the local level.

As the Nepalese peace and political transition is prolonged and different districts continue to face political conflict, one can easily see the importance of a transitional local peace-building body like the LPCs. If the LPCs were able to function effectively, the situation of peace at the local level would definitely have been better by now and they would naturally contribute to good governance as well. And, given that the country must still go through another phase of transition during the implementation of the new constitution with a federal units provision, the LPCs will again have a vital role to play in maintaining peace at the local level.

There is a lot of potential for the LPCs to be revived as a vibrant local peace structure for the next couple of years of political transition and use the moral authority of the mechanism for governance-related issues until there is an elected body in place. The international community may still be willing to contribute for an effective management of the LPCs. Almost all the political parties, including the Maoists and those influential in the Madhes region, support the mechanism. With a renewed vigor that results in a revised strategic approach, the LPCs can still become a critical transitional peace tool to manage local affairs of peace and governance for years to come.

Bishnu Sapkota is The Asia Foundation’s program advisor in Nepal. He can be reached at bsapkota@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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