Consolidating democracy-July 2017

Consolidating democracy

Had there been regular local elections in the past two decades, the self-correcting mechanism of democracy would have thrown out corrupt, non-performing leaders .

There are high hopes that the recently elected village and municipal governments with their constitutionally mandated authority and increased budget will usher a new era of participatory democracy and accelerated development across the nation. But there is also a real risk that during the next few years, “development” might be equated with building new office buildings and infrastructure to accommodate the enlarged local governments. Even money meant for direct delivery of basic services to citizens at the grassroots might be siphoned off to construct various local government buildings and facilities for bureaucrats and politicians. There is also a genuine worry that the increased budget for development will be diverted to hiring more staff on government payroll.
This tendency to equate development with Big Government buildings and bureaucracy must be prudently avoided. Instead, we must develop a conducive environment for creating more jobs in the private sector and for more productive self-employment in agro-industry for ordinary people, not sinecures in bloated government bureaucracies.

Beware diversions  

The National Planning Commission has wisely recommended that a significant portion of the local development budget should be earmarked as conditional grants for specific development outcomes closely aligned with Nepal’s commitment to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs). The budget meant for paying salaries, construction of new office buildings, vehicles and other administrative infrastructure should be strictly separated from conditional cash transfers for real development activities.
This is easier said than done as our politicians and bureaucrats have become very skillful in diverting funds from one budget line to another, particularly towards the end of the fiscal year, and our control, monitoring and auditing systems are weak and unreliable.
I would encourage our international development partners, donors and lenders to increasingly channel more of their funds to help achieve SDGs through local governments. But they ought to be vigilant that their support is not all put in a basket of fungible funds where local politicians or bureaucrats can easily divert funds meant for one worthwhile purpose to another worthwhile purpose that is only indirectly related to the original project objectives.

Revisit boundaries 

Because the number and boundary of the currently approved municipalities and some of their proposed headquarters locations may change significantly based on more objective reassessment and experience, I would caution against massive investment in construction of physical infrastructure in brand new municipal headquarters. The wisdom of locating all or most referral level services—major hospitals, tertiary schools, sports stadiums, etc—in the new municipal capitals should be carefully judged primarily from the point of view of convenience for consumers rather than for service providers.
For example, in some cases it might be better to upgrade some conveniently located existing health posts into larger health centers than build an expensive new hospital at every municipal headquarters. In other cases, it might be better to disperse some services to different wards within the municipality depending on people’s settlement patterns, and ease of transport and communication.
In any case, we must watch out that short-term political considerations do not lead to a frenzy of wasting resources in building what might turn out to be many white elephants in a few years time.

Make election voter-friendly 

The 2017 local elections saw a relatively large number of ballots declared invalid. This was partly because the ballot papers were too long, too large, and too confusing, with too many candidates from too many parties. The ballot papers did not have names with photographs of candidates. Instead, candidates and their party affiliation had to be identified by party symbols. However, candidates of many smaller parties were compelled to run as “independents” using arbitrary symbols assigned by the Election Commission rather than using their normal party symbols.

The system of using symbols rather than names and photographs of candidates is a relic of an earlier era when most voters were illiterate and printing photographs in ballot papers was difficult. With much higher adult literacy now and with low-cost new technology, time has come for Nepal to modernize our ballot papers and introduce electronic voting system. This will make voting and vote counting easier, faster and tamper-proof. There should also be a higher threshold for political parties and independent candidates to be eligible to run in elections. This too would help make ballot papers more voter-friendly and more convenient for using electronic voting machines

The current system that allows voting for Mayors and Deputy Mayors from different parties should also be reconsidered to avoid the notorious practice of bhāgbandā or sharing of spoils among various parties, that breeds the syndicate and cartel system of corruption in local governments.

Reform campaign finance 

Election campaigns are becoming very expensive in all democracies, and Nepal is no exception. To mobilize funding for election, parties and candidates resort to seeking generous donations from unscrupulous businessmen, companies and other contributors with promises for repayment either in cash or government contracts, jobs and concessions following the elections.

Thus candidates are deeply in debt after election and become vulnerable to corruption and sabotage by their financiers. To avoid or at least to minimize this vulnerability, Nepal needs a strong campaign finance reform, part of which involves state financing for parties and candidates meeting certain criteria. We can learn from the experience of other democratic countries that have robust and transparent campaign financing systems.
Another area for immediate reform is Nepal’s newly introduced proportional representation (PR) system. While PR is an advanced democratic practice that works well in mature democracies, it has become a highly corrupt and unethical system in Nepal. It allows party bosses to hand-pick their cronies as people’s representatives. It fosters nepotism and rewards sale of elective positions to the highest financial contributors to political parties. This system must be seriously reformed to retain its positive potential and to avoid the noxious distortion that has become the hallmark of the PR system in Nepal.

Empower Commission 

Finally, to avoid haggling over election dates, and repeated postponement of elections, the Election Commission should be empowered to fix periodic election dates based on certain agreed criteria. Leaving this to political calculation and machination of government in power and bargaining with its coalition partners and opposition parties is a mockery of democracy.

Had there been regular, periodic local elections during the past two decades, the self-correcting mechanism of democracy would have thrown out many corrupt and non-performing leaders and brought in fresh leadership at the local level. This would have eventually percolated up the ladder to national level. Very few of today’s corrupt, non-performing national leaders would have endured the test of a well-functioning democracy. We would see a completely different line-up of younger, better leaders in all major political parties, without the bloodshed and divisive politics that we got as a gift of the Maoist revolution and the unprincipled behavior of other national and regional parties.
Both democracy and development have suffered as a result of these serious flaws in our election system. Let us now make the required course correction to regain the lost momentum to consolidate democracy and accelerate economic development and social progress.

This is the concluding part of a three-part article on emerging national politics following the two phases of local elections.

The author is a former senior UN official and writer of ‘Lost in Transition: Rebuilding Nepal from the Maoist mayhem and mega earthquake (2015)’