Though the government has announced the date for the local level polls, there are still several hurdles on the road to elections.
--BY SHANT SHARMA
Finally, the government has announced the date for the local level elections. As per the decision, the much delayed but much crucial polls are to be held on May 14 in a single phase across the country. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal who kept saying that the election date will be announced only after the constitution amendment, as demanded by the Madhes-based parties, came under immense pressure to announce the local polls date as the constitutional deadline to hold three tiers of elections - local, provincial and federal - is fast approaching. As per the constitution, all three sets of elections have to be held by January 2018.
So, the local polls date has been announced. But will the elections happen for sure on the said date, though? Well, it’s hard not to be optimistic. However, there are still hurdles ahead, to say the least.
The last word from the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) is that they can't go ahead with the local polls whatsoever unless the Maoist-NC government’s proposal for amendment to the constitution – which is in favour of Madhesi demands – is passed. The Madheshi Front even pledged just a few days before the date announcement that if local elections were announced without meeting their demands with respect to the constitution, they would return to violent protest.
General Secretary of Rastriya Madhes Samajbadi Party, Keshav Jha, says that a compromise on the constitution is not an option for the Madhes-based parties. “We are not in a position to go to elections without the constitution amendment. We cannot go to elections with the issue of amendment as our political agenda,” he told this scribe recently.
UML chairman KP Sharma Oli, on the other hand, is against holding the local elections under the current amendment proposal. While PM Dahal and NC leaders have been trying to have the amendment passed in parliament, the UML has rejected the idea, insisting that the local elections be held under the constitution as it stands. Or under an amendment which the UML can approve.
Thus, it is clear that the amendment of the constitution and local elections have been tied together like a Gordian knot for a very long time. Will this knot loosen to allow for the first local election in Nepal for 20 years? Or will it only tighten more and protests, perhaps even riots, reignite in the districts? It is still hard to say anything with any degree of certainty.
The restructuring of local bodies is another big hurdle on the road to local elections. The Local Bodies Restructuring Commission (LBRC) published its long-awaited report in mid-January, proposing to reduce the number of municipalities and VDCs to just 719 local bodies. But loud protests in many districts against the reduction of local units pressured the government to review the LBRC report.
As a result, the cabinet decided to form a taskforce under the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development to again scrutinize the options in re-delineating local bodies, taking local views more into account. The taskforce has already recommended to the government to increase the number of local units. But so far, no one knows how many local bodies would be appropriate and where should the boundaries run.
There are other issues as well. For example, the Election Commission (EC) is yet to begin what it calls the 'actual preparations' for the local elections, thanks to the government's dillydally in forging consensus among the political parties. The EC also lacks crucial documents required for conducting elections.
Election officials involved in poll preparations say that they are in a fix to begin the 'actual preparations' as the LBRC report is yet to be approved by the government and forwarded to the EC. The LBRC report is said to be crucial for fixing polling stations and deploying officials to manage elections at the local level. Thus, some major tasks of elections - fixing polling stations, designing ballot papers and procuring essentials - have not begun yet.
"We are facing some difficulties to expedite preparations as the government is yet to provide us with the LBRC report. This has affected the fixing of polling stations and finalize the voters' list and ballot papers," said an Election Commissioner. The delay has also affected the task of verification of voters registered with the EC. Around 14 million voters are registered with the election body but their verification has been affected as the EC has not been able to finalize the number of polling stations so far.
According to an assessment conducted by the EC, it requires additional 20,000 to 25,000 ballot boxes, each of it being equivalent to the size of an 80-litre bucket, to conduct the elections. Those who used to earlier provide the ballot boxes have refused to delver them this time citing the lack of adequate time to manufacture them. Previously, Japan had donated ballot boxes required for the elections. This time, however, the Japanese government, has declined to provide the ballot boxes arguing that it requires at least five months to manufacture the ballot boxes.
"Arranging ballot boxes has been a matter of concern for us. Although we already have some 70,000 ballot boxes, we need an additional 25,000 ballot boxes this time as maximum number of political parties will be contesting the elections," said the Election Commissioner.
According to a source, after seeing no possibility of getting ballot boxes from donors, the EC is preparing to call a public tender soon. However, the EC still has no idea how many types of ballot papers it has to produce and how much time it will need to complete the printing.
The biggest hurdle is, however, the politicians' intent to hold the elections. Among the major political parties, only the CPN-UML seems to be ready to hold the polls at the earliest as 'public mood' right now is in its favour. Though PM Dahal has switched his position lately and taken the side of those politicians demanding local polls at the earliest for a long time, political analysts say that he doesn't really want the elections to be held on the said date as his party, the CPN (Maoist centre) stands to lose in the elections.
Similarly, political analysts say, the Madhes-based parties, too, are not in favour of holding the local polls on May 14 though the Nepali Congress is said to be "okay" with the polls on the said date.