Effective Citizen Participation and Quality of Local Democracy: Assessing the Post-Electoral Local Governance in Nepal
Local elections conducted in 2017 are visibly contributing in changing the landscape of local governance in Nepal. However, one could easily suspect the degree to which such changes have fulfilled ordinary peoples’ aspirations of, inter alia, quality of local democracy. Building upon Altman and Pérez-Liñán’s (2010) usage of the term quality of democracy, this article scrutinises one year of elected local governance in Nepal through the lens of ‘effective participation.’ What changes are being introduced for ordinary people to effectively participate in the new landscape of local democracy in Nepal? Arguments are developed largely on the basis of observation along with the usage of about 60 media reports mainly published in Nepali.
The term effective participation is understood, in and for this article, as the participation of ordinary people in the making of local political decisions, and that methods for such participation may not necessarily be only voting. While many political scientists continue to wrestle on whether voting should be regarded as effective participation, many acknowledge that voter turnout rates in elections provide important insights for understanding the quality of democracy. Nevertheless, as Fung (2015) argues, other measures such as who, how and why an ordinary citizen participates in the making of local political decisions matters much in the measuring of quality of democracy.
The new local governance in Nepal
Local governance in modern-day Nepal is historically unique. Local governments are not only created constitutionally, but are assigned with as many as twenty-two ‘state powers’ to be exercised in cooperation with provincial and the federal government. These powers are not merely the interpretation of fringe service delivery functions of local governments but are constitutionally guaranteed legislative, judiciary and executive rights.
In terms of legislative rights, the new local governments in Nepal can formulate and implement their own laws subject to the degree to which such laws do not contrast with provincial and federal legislation. On the judicial powers side, each local government must form a judicial committee in the chairpersonship of the vice/deputy chief of municipalities with the aim to resolve problems such as small-scale family, local property and other fringe disputes. The verdicts declared by local governments can only be reviewed by the provincial high courts.
Moreover, the executive roles have expanded from the conventional service delivery functions to policymaking functions though there are questions about the extent to which such functions can be sufficiently financed by local governments alone. The Local Government Act (2017) envisions that local governments will not only be the sole executives to implement their own plans and programs but that they will have to partner in implementing provincial and federal policies and programs. These expanded functions demand for high level of human resource competency which is severely lacking at the local government level.
Participatory opportunities in local governments
There are two diverse roots for ordinary people to participate in the new local governance environment in Nepal. The first is the usual voting root through which registered voters can elect their political leaders for five years. Many democratic theorists challenge this root as having limited scope particularly for those citizens who are either unregistered in voter-lists or deprived from participating in elections due to poverty, lower level of political literacy, to name a few. Voting is essentially a contested concept when it comes to citizen participation in decision-making; however, as much as 74% voter turnout was reported in Nepal’s most recent local elections in 2017. There could be many hidden causes behind this high rate of voter turnout but one of the primary factors was that local governments (under the previous governance arrangement) were run by unelected bureaucrats for over 15 years, and that citizens were desperately awaiting to participate in local elections. Furthermore, the prevailing Constitution and its subsequent legislative frameworks guarantee that local people will be given regular opportunities to vote in every five years.
The second root for common people to involve in local decision-making is through non-electoral channels. In the new local governance landscape in Nepal, a range of participate participatory institutions are either created as part of the new local governance system or enhanced as a way of refining conventional participatory mechanisms. Although one of the prominent new participatory institutions is the general assembly (Sabhâ) of municipal councillors, there is a question of how ordinary people can fit into the entity designed for elected councillors.
Nevertheless, the media continues to report that ordinary people are more hopeful towards those conventional participatory institutions which were familiar to them for years, if not decades. Institutions like the participatory planning process are incorporated in the law but elected officials are not obliged to implement the planning process for providing participatory opportunities to ordinary people. Instead, it has been interpreted as a way of communicating decisions downward to communities. Many ordinary people, therefore, feel that participatory planning has not been refined to actually increase or deepen public participation in decision-making.
The other form conventional participatory institution is Tole/Lane Organisation (TLO), a community based organisation that is formed at each of the suburb representing one member from each household residing in a specified area/street. While the initial idea of forming such TLOs was funded by the UNDP in 1997, the Local Government Act (2017) exclusively urges all local governments to form or revitalise TLOs. The ultimate aim of forming TLOs in the new local governance landscape is to widen public participation in the planning process, implementation mechanisms and monitoring activities.
Are ordinary people participating in local decision-making?
The central concern of this article is to understand the degree to which ordinary people are participating in local decision-making after the restoration of electoral local democracy in Nepal. The starting point of this research was the observation of the planning process in an urban municipality in the western Nepal from 2014 to 2016 as part of my PhD research project. It was noted in the municipality that ordinary people were unprecedentedly participating in the local decision-making through the participatory planning process in spite of the absence of electoral local democracy for over a decade until 2016. The database is now updated based on my direct involvement in the elected environment of local governance.
Preliminary impressions are overwhelmingly apathetic. Many elected leaders are unsure about whether they need to involve ordinary people in local decision-making; and even if some of them are positive about engaging ordinary citizens, they are hopeless about the procedures, time and the cost for increasing citizen participation. On the one hand, many traditional mechanisms for citizen participation in local governments are genuinely ineffective as they do not recognise the changing context of local democracy in Nepal. On the other, newly elected local leaders do not have much time in refining or creating new participatory avenues for citizens to participate. The increasing budget for local governments, which is above 17% of the federal budget, indicates that local leaders are swamped in carrying out constitutionally assigned roles, legally envisioned responsibilities, and locally aspired duties. There remains the least chance in many municipalities to introduce new forms of participatory mechanisms to facilitate the participation of ordinary people in local decision-making.
While elected officials continue to claim that they represent their communities hence they are aware of what citizens actually need in their territories, it is ridiculously depressing to learn that some of these leaders are merely decorating certain participatory processes such as the participatory planning process. A range of decorative features for citizens’ participation are found in many municipalities. At the neighbourhood level, consultations are found to be organised where ordinary people are given chances to participate and have their say. At the ward level, some form of deliberations happen where relatively elite citizens participate and try to influence elected officials. And, at the municipal level, a few number of highly influential unelected individuals are found to be nominated by elected leaders to work as experts in various policymaking committees such as the Revenue Consultation Committee. However, when it comes to their actual influence in shaping what decisions are made, participation of ordinary people at various levels does not make any significant difference. Elected officials are always free to choose the choice from and beyond the list prepared by citizens at neighbourhood and the ward level.
It is too early to make any sharp conclusion about the quality of local democracy in Nepal, as the entire local government system is still in its infancy. However, looking back at Altman and Pérez-Liñán’s (2010) usage of the term quality of democracy in terms of effective citizen participation, there is more frustration than hope, though such a conclusion is based only on some early stage indications. Conventional institutions for citizen participation are either inadequate to recognise the changes in local democracy, or ineffective as they cannot incorporate citizens’ voice in the actual decision-making. New forms of participatory institutions are, therefore, urgently required to address the need for increasing ordinary people’s participation in local decision-making.