After months of uncertainty, Nepal has announced the second round of local elections under its historic 2015 constitution. In the face of Covid lockdowns and political paralysis, local governments have been a bright spot on the nation’s rocky road to federalism. Read the full article: https://asiafoundation.org/2022/03/02/nepals-federalism-milestone-five-opportunities-and-a-second-round-of-elections/
Namit Wagley (00:00):
At the national level, we're having a parliamentary turmoil with dissolutions of parliament happening twice in the last two years with the coalition government taking over from a majority government, which split into three different factions. And in essence, that's why the local elections at this particular time are very important.
John Rieger (00:21):
Another perilous moment on the rocky road to federalism in Nepal. This week on InAsia, from The Asia Foundation, I'm John Rieger.
Tracie Yang (00:28):
And I'm Tracie Yang. In May, the Himalayan nation of Nepal will reach another milestone in its great experiment with national governance as voters go to the polls for local elections.
John Rieger (00:38):
And if local elections don't sound particularly earth shaking to you, our guest today is here to provide some enlightenment. Namit Wagley is The Asia Foundation's deputy program director for sub national governance in Nepal, which sounds like just the right portfolio. Namit, welcome to InAsia.
Namit Wagley (00:55):
Thank you, John. Thank you, Tracie. Great to be here.
John Rieger (00:58):
Namit, in this week's blog, you call Nepal's coming elections, "an historic moment." What's the big deal?
Namit Wagley (01:05):
Well, thank you John, for that question. I think it's a great question. The constitution in 2015 was preceded by a decade long civil war. A lot of it was fought to rid the country of historic injustices and structural discrimination that was evident and the lack of economic prosperity that was going on in the country. So federalism was an idea whereby different political parties would have representation, different ethnic minorities and different communities would have governments represent them locally, provincially, and at the national level, to be able to better understand local realities, be able to cater to the different needs of people living in different geographic locations across the country and also, respond to those needs and priorities. So this juncture that we are at currently comes about to the political compromise that took a decade to codify through the constitution in 2015. Right? So the one thing above all that the local elections highlight is the aspiration to move forward with the constitution.
Tracie Yang (02:11):
So Nepal's new federal system is a remarkable experiment. An old and traditional society adopting, all at once, a thoroughly new system of government. Have things been going smoothly?
Namit Wagley (02:27):
Thank you, Tracie.
Tracie Yang (02:29):
I know that's a big question.
Namit Wagley (02:30):
So let's take this in the context of, Nepal has changed seven constitutions in as many decades.
John Rieger (03:27):
Give us an example of what was left out.
Namit Wagley (03:30):
Sure, sure. So for example, when the constitution came about, I think the ministry of law noted in about 2016, that 110 federal laws needed to be implemented. About two dozens of provincial and a dozen of local laws needed to be made just for us to be able to operationalize this aspiration of a federal governance system. However, four or five years on, we barely managed to do one third of that, put policies in place. As a result of that, there's a lot of different confusions, competing claims, not just on jurisdictions, but also on how to handle service delivery.
Namit Wagley (04:10):
Just to give you an example of that, I think one of the core functions of governance is how to mobilize a vibrant civil service, right? And since 2015, the crucial legislation that needed to be drafted for a civil service that the provincial and local level hasn't materialized. And as a result of that, provincial and local level governments have been unable to draft their own legislations or enact policies in that vacuum. So there's a lot of these crucial aspects that still needs answering and in the absence of those, governing has been really difficult.
Tracie Yang (04:45):
So you're kind of getting at a misconception that you create a constitution and all the rest will just follow. But how do you get a whole population to buy into this new system?
Namit Wagley (04:59):
Up until the pandemic... The pandemic has certainly changed a lot of different dynamics and the people's perceptions have changed quite drastically, but up until then, I think the people of Nepal bought on this wholeheartedly, this idea that federal system of governance does provide people with access to services, access to local representatives. The citizens were able to access services like registrations of birth, providing health services, for example.
John Rieger (05:25):
So genuine local benefits.
Namit Wagley (05:27):
Tracie Yang (05:28):
So then you talked a little bit about now with the pandemic. So what's been the impact?
Namit Wagley (05:35):
COVID has come about at a time when the country was going through this historic transition. What COVID has done is exemplified and exasperated some of the existing challenges relating to how we go about governing, right? How do you go about relief distributions, enacting fiscal priorities, annual budgeting and planning? Where at the national level, we're having a parliamentary turmoil with dissolutions of parliament happening twice in the last two years with the coalition government taking over from a majority government, which split into three different factions. And in essence, that's why the local elections at this particular time are very important.
John Rieger (06:13):
Namit, your remarks make me imagine a scenario where I wake up one morning and somebody says, "Now you're the mayor. Run the city."
Tracie Yang (06:22):
Trial by fire.
John Rieger (06:23):
It makes me wonder, what about Nepal's political class? Does the country have enough competent local politicians to make the new system work?
Namit Wagley (06:32):
Well, that's again, a great question. I think in the last 20 years, we've gone through this vacuum of no local elections, I think since 1997. I think there weren't any local elections until 2017.
John Rieger (06:46):
That's actually incredible. That's quite a long time. I mean, this was an extremely centralized government.
Namit Wagley (06:52):
Exactly. And the 2017 elections, there were exceptionally a new batch of elected representatives at the local level with very little technical know-how experience, network, and access to that sort of national political class. But on the flip side, I would also say that given the crisis, given the experience in the past five years, we've seen a lot of different elected representatives providing crucial services, taking those crucial decisions and making long term visions and plans. So in a nutshell, I think it was a mixed bag, but there's certainly some optimism because despite the political turmoil at the national level, I think the one tier of government that held steady during these five years is the local government.
John Rieger (07:40):
And so that really does put this second round of local elections, since the adoption of the new constitution, into context. In that respect, it's a triumph.
Namit Wagley (07:51):
No, absolutely. I would say that. But on the flip side, we're also quite impatient. A lot of people thought that once the constitution would be drafted, a lot of problems relating to structural inequalities, service delivery, economic prosperity, would automatically fall into place and would be able to get towards that dreamland as soon as possible, but that hasn't happened. And people are slowly realizing that it's taking time, but simultaneously, people are also impatient. People are already calling for this federalism experience as a failure.
Tracie Yang (08:23):
So it sounds like the question of legitimacy makes these local elections quite crucial.
Namit Wagley (08:29):
No, absolutely. Absolutely. I think the public trust with political parties is at its lowest in the last five years. So even to move away from that and give them a semblance of hope, yes, the political parties are trying to do the right thing. I think the local elections are absolutely crucial.
John Rieger (08:48):
The Asia Foundation's Namit Wagley. Thank you for joining us.
Namit Wagley (08:51):
Thank you, John. Thank you, Tracie. It's been a pleasure.
Tracie Yang (08:54):
And that's our show for this week. Namit has written, in greater detail, about local elections and Nepal's ambitious experiment with federalism in this week's InAsia blog. John and Tracie say, "Check it out."
John Rieger (09:06):
And while you're there, why not just push the button and subscribe to the InAsia podcast. Until next time, I'm John Rieger.
Tracie Yang (09:12):
And I'm Tracie Yang.
John Rieger (09:13):
Thanks for listening.