Linking democracy with development

Nilkantha Upreti, the Chief Election Commissioner, very truly pointed out recently that local bodies are the foundations of democracy. Technically, Nepal is a democracy; but we need to hold local-level elections to translate democracy into a reality that common people can relate to. What we have at present is a democracy that is quite far from this ‘reality that common men can relate to.’ The current system has created a disconnect between the people and the politicians. The people-politician link is missing; the tax-benefit link is missing; the democracy-development link is missing!

Why this has happened in present-day Nepal is not too difficult to fathom if we take some time to delve into what politics is about. Politics, from the perspective of individual politicians, never has to be about delivering; a politician just has to be good at selling promises. After all, how many votes a politician garners is a good measure of how successful an individual is, as a politician. And what earns them votes? Promises, not deliveries!

Cases to validate this belief are aplenty in contemporary Nepalese politics. All major parties promised to deliver the constitution within a year. They also promised to end load-shedding within two to three years, and three to five years, in Kathmandu and Nepal, respectively. The biggest party in the current government even promised to hold the local-level elections within the first six months of its coming to power. Oh, them promises sans delivery!

What is even more menacing in a democracy like the one that prevails in Nepal – the one without a people-politician link – is the potential it has to create a vicious cycle of ill-informed promises. Will you vote for a politician that now comes to you and says, “Forget about ending load shedding in Nepal in 3 years, that’s impossible! Let’s be realistic and try to create an enabling environment for hydropower developers so that we can hopefully end load-shedding in the next 10 years?” For a commoner who is not very well-informed about how an economy really functions, it is still very tempting to vote for the same old politician who promises to end the problem in 3 years, or who lures him into dreams of a handsome minimum wage, or who assures him a fat agriculture subsidy. And here is where the menacing power comes to life: the new guy will not make ‘deliverable’ or ‘economically sound’ promises as long as his competitors are making such palatable promises. Going against this popular practice puts him at a great political risk. The most probable scenario, if he defies the popular practice is that he fails to garner sufficient votes and becomes a political failure.

All of this has been made possible in contemporary Nepalese political economy because of the fact that we have not had a local-level election in over fifteen years now. The lawmakers we elected through the two constituent assembly elections are not representing the people to solve the day-to-day life problems of common men. Their mandate is to deliver the elusive constitution. Drafting the constitution is their job and problems like there being no course books in local public schools, locals’ taxes not being put to use to maintaining the dilapidated roads in the local levels despite there being three separate taxes for this very purpose (viz. vehicle tax, road construction and rehabilitation duty, and road maintenance and improvement duty), maintaining law and order, and resolving conflicts in the local levels “can wait!” F.A. Hayek sums up meticulously in his theory of ‘spontaneous order’ that even if the planners (the lawmakers in this case) wanted to solve these problems, the very fact that these people do not have knowledge of the ‘circumstances of time and place’ in the grassroots level renders them unable to solving the day-to-day problems of the common men. There is no institution in place that can link the people to their “supposed” representatives so that they can voice their problems and have something done about them. There is democracy, but the people are being left out of the political economic equation.

Coming back to the point that the Chief Election Commissioner was trying to make, it is the local elections that will link the people with their elected representatives. Local elections will foster accountability from the local authorities. It is not rocket science to understand that the mayor of a municipality is in a much better position to understand the problems the locals of his/her municipality are facing, and do something about it, than the lawmakers in the central government.

Local level elections will make sure that there is a link between people and politics, and between taxes paid and benefits received, by offering a check-and-balance mechanism. With the elected representative living right amongst them, it empowers the citizens to seek accountability and answerability from their representatives. The moment a mayor starts showing signs of shying away from his responsibilities, the locals can either vote him out and replace him with a more capable representative, or they can abandon the municipality altogether and go reside in some other municipality that has a better track record. Competition (thus arisen), just like in the realm of economics, can work in politics as well. It is this through this virtue of competition that local-level elections can create a link between democracy and development.

This article was originally published in Perspectives, The Himalayan Times, April 12, 2015, under the title “Linking Democracy with Development”. Click here for the original version.

Akash Shrestha

Akash Shrestha is a researcher at Samriddhi Foundation where his focus areas are investment laws, public enterprises and education.