The plains truth: local elections in Nepal

Nepal’s Madhesis are seeking both grassroots democracy and state restructuring

Two months after the first phase of local elections, Nepal has completed the second, and more tricky, phase. This week’s polling in provinces in the Terai plains and in the far-eastern and far-western parts completed the first elections to local bodies in two decades. In the first phase, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) was in the lead, winning the highest number of councils and wards, with the Nepali Congress coming a distant second. The UML had steadfastly opposed any change to the Constitution finalised in 2015, specifically amendments that would allow a redrawing of the provinces, as demanded by the plains-dwellers, the Madhesis. This approach helped it strengthen its “nationalist” image in the hills. The second phase has been a more difficult proposition for the UML. Voter turnout in this phase was close to 70.5%, while it was 74% in the first phase. The high turnout, despite incidents of violence in areas that went to the polls on Wednesday, indicates a grassroots yearning for inclusion and the deepening of democratic institutions. Among the Madhesi parties, the newly formed Rashtriya Janata Party-Nepal boycotted the polls as its demand for amendments to be made to the Constitution before the polls was not met. But sensing the public mood for participation, it fielded independent candidates in order to consolidate support.

The state restructuring demand had been articulated during the jan andolans (popular struggles) of 2006. The demand for federalisation was repeated in the agitations in the Terai in 2015, which had led to an economic blockade of the valley by the plains-dwellers. But despite these agitations, the issue remains unresolved as strident opposition by the UML has prevented any consensus over amendments that would realign the provinces so that the Madhesis are in a majority in more provinces than those delineated in 2015. For the Madhesis, federalisation is a desperate demand for recognition and inclusion, as the hill elite dominates the various layers of the government, the bureaucracy and the security forces. The threat of an electoral boycott was meant to be a pressure tactic to get the Central government led by the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) to live up to the promises of pushing for the requisite amendments in Parliament. But as the local elections were widely welcomed by the electorate, including the plains-dwellers, this was a self-defeating step. This is why two other Madhesi forces — the Federal Socialist Forum and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum Loktantrik — decided to participate in the elections. However, the three big parties — the UML, the Congress and the Maoists — should not misread the high participation level as marking a change in outlook in the plains on state restructuring. Madhesi faith in democracy must be secured with the promised amendments.

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Printable version | Jun 2, 2020 11:18:09 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/the-plains-truth/article19180763.ece

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