Nepal Elections: Why Can’t the Mayor Be a Woman?

May 10, 2022 The Asia Foundation
Nepal Elections: Why Can’t the Mayor Be a Woman?
Show Notes Transcript

Fourteen thousand women won political office in Nepal’s first local elections in 2017. With the 2022 elections now just days away, our guest, Sumina Karki, asks why so few women ran at the top of the ticket. 

Sumina Karki (00:00):

It's not that women have not participated in the various political movements that has taken place in Nepal, but the preference of political party gatekeepers at different level have always favored men.

John Rieger (00:16):

Some thoughts and frustrations about local elections in Nepal. This time on InAsia from The Asia Foundation. I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (00:25):

And I'm Tracie Yang. On May 13th, Federal Nepal's first time local governments will reach the end of their five-year term and the nation will go to the polls to elect their replacements.

John Rieger (00:35):

It's a democratic milestone for sure. And it's also a good time to ask what's worked and what hasn't. Joining us today is The Asia Foundation's Sumina Karki. She's co-author of a new study of the stubborn incongruence between the country's formal electoral system, the law, and its informal political culture specifically with respect to gender. Sumina, welcome to InAsia.

Sumina Karki (00:57):

Thank you, John. Thank you, Tracy. Very excited to be here.

John Rieger (01:01):

So Sumina, how would you rate the first generation of local elected governments? Success or failure?

Sumina Karki (01:07):

I say a mix of both. Success because service delivery, access to justice for certain cases, has been very responsive. We've seen development closer to home. People do not have to travel long distance to get specific set of services. And a lot of local governments have been able to deliver despite them having to start everything from scratch. The local government also helped bring a sense of stability and security in Nepali people's life. For instance, during COVID-19, local government were at the forefront, responding to needs of citizens like setting up quarantine facilities, distributing relief packages. So the trust in local government has increased, I would say.

John Rieger (01:53):

Okay, but...

Sumina Karki (01:55):

There still is a capacity gap. And there has also been criticism around a lack of participatory planning and budgeting process and how the local government heavily prioritize building roads and infrastructure especially in a very unplanned manner. And they also paid less attention to long-term impact of such development works on environment. But among all this discussion of development, the contribution of women, who are mostly deputy mayors, has been under shadow, I would say. A recent article in one of the major publications in Kathmandu have discussed how elected women leaders focused on the social side of the development. They invested in providing scholarship for children from marginalized communities. They rolled out nutrition programs. Programs for people with disability. And in all this, most of the elected woman leaders have been in the forefront.

Tracie Yang (02:57):

So one remarkable fact about the previous elections in 2017 is that 14000 women won electoral office in a society that still has very traditional ideas about gender roles. How did that happen?

Sumina Karki (03:13):

There has been a very long struggle for equality in Nepal. Nepal experienced a decade-long conflict. We witnessed a second people's movement after the end of the conflict. So in order to work toward achieving that equality, inclusion, social justice, a new constitution was endorsed in 2015. The constitution guarantees proportional representation of women in all bodies of state. And in keeping with this spirit, the Local Level Election Law of 2017 also mandated that political parties must include a woman as one of their candidates in either mayor or deputy mayor's position. Because of such formal policies, we saw visible presence of women in municipal governance space.

Tracie Yang (04:06):

Maybe you can unpack that a little bit more. Because another figure from your report is that 93% of that first cohort of deputy mayors are women. Can you maybe talk about that more?

Sumina Karki (04:19):

Well, I'm saying that we saw more women in political space and governance space, the catch area is that, like you said, around 93% of deputy mayors and vice chairpersons were women and more than 97% of mayor and chairperson position was occupied by men. So what we saw was that the formal policies widened the space for women in the public offices, but that particular provision, which mandated to nominate a woman in either mayor or deputy mayor position was incorrectly interpreted as deputy has to be a woman or a woman has to be nominated for deputy mayor position. The justification that was given was women were not capable to run for public offices, especially in a higher position. So our team at Asia Foundation Nepal office, conducted a study to assess the candidate selection process and criteria of the local elections by applying gender lens and interviewees of that particular study constantly focused on lack of capable women to run for political parties' higher positions. The the focus is still on a crunch of women in the supply side.

John Rieger (05:42):

Meaning the inadequate supply of qualified women.

Sumina Karki (05:47):

We've looked into the other side of this conversation, which is the demand side from political parties. In that particular study, we've unpacked different steps of candidate selection process of the political parties. For example, seniority in terms of numbers of years invested in the party, sacrifices made for the political party in terms of who have participated in different political movements or those who have been jailed.

John Rieger (06:13):

So, lions of the struggle?

Sumina Karki (06:14):

Yes. And these selection criteria are very subjective, informal, and favor men, especially older generation men. Since Nepal didn't have local election in the last 20 years, it basically created a backlog of men from older generation who feel entitled that they should get election tickets for the local level.

John Rieger (06:39):

That means that, regardless of the formal system, there are informal candidate selection criteria that act as gatekeepers.

Sumina Karki (06:48):

It's not that women have not participated in the various political movements that has taken place in Nepal, but the preference of political party gatekeepers at different level have always favored men. There are different selection committees within the political parties at different level, like ward level committee, district level committees, who are primary responsible for forwarding the names of candidates for local elections. Different research has shown that just 8% of the selection committee of political parties consists of women. These committees prefer sending names of men for the mayor position since these people have occupied posts and positions within the parties.

Tracie Yang (07:34):

It sounds like women who want to seek local office are caught in a vicious cycle. They can't get political experience because they don't have political experience.

Sumina Karki (07:44):

Yes, exactly. Women are not getting nominated for higher ranks due to which they have less experience, which means they have less access to networks which brings more political and social capital, less capacity to attract funds for them to run elections. So this creates this trap which formal policies might not alone be able to address.

John Rieger (08:09):

Where are the pressure points that can disrupt this vicious cycle?

Sumina Karki (08:13):

We often put a lot of emphasis on the formal side of things like formal policies, formal values, institutions. The programs designed by non-governmental organizations and donors also heavily focus on empowering women after they're elected, but we have to realize that investing on them before election is also equally important.

Tracie Yang (08:40):

Sumina, I want to ask. As a Nepali woman, what would you say to male officials who don't see themselves as the barrier?

Sumina Karki (08:54):

The governance space is so heavily dominated by men. It tends to become an intimidating space, I guess. If there are more women in policy making, they tend to bring opinions and needs of women, of marginalized communities. They tend to think about community in general. They tend to think about the plan of more comprehensive development rather than just focusing on physical infrastructure development. And that is why it's so important to have that inclusive, participatory way of policy making.

John Rieger (09:32):

The Asia Foundation. Sumina Karki in Nepal. Thank you for joining us.

Sumina Karki (09:36):

Thank you for having me, John and Tracie.

Tracie Yang (09:38):

And that's our show for this week. The study we've been talking about is called Gendered Election Processes, Networks, and the Contouring of Experiences of Political Office in Local Governments in Nepal. And you can read it by following the link in today's InAsia blog.

John Rieger (09:52):

And while you're at it, subscribe to the InAsia podcast. Until next time, I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (09:57):

And I'm Tracie Yang.

John Rieger (09:58):

Thanks for listening.

John Rieger (10:04):

It's a democratic milestone for sure. I can't. Was that a rooster?