Between 2002 and 2017 Nepal’s local government institutions operated without any elected representatives due to the country’s Maoist conflict political transition. Ganesh Prasad Pandeya (National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Japan) looks at what the consequences have been for local government, democracy and trust in Nepal.
Elected representatives in local government are one of the most important actors and factors for promoting local democracy and development. They can play an important role in promoting greater responsiveness and accountability to citizens, reflecting citizens’ voice in local public service delivery. Elected representatives are also an effective means for bridging the gap between citizens and governments, and for enhancing citizen participation in government agencies.
In Nepal, however, local government operated without any elected representatives between 2002 and 2017, thanks to the Maoist conflict and the country’s political transition. Based on data from exploratory interviews with 53 people, a questionnaire survey with 88 people, six sets of focus discussions with both stakeholders and citizens, and a case study in two villages, I found that respondents viewed this long-term absence of elected representatives in four different ways: 1) an absence of a public voice; 2) low levels of responsiveness; 3) reduced public trust in local government; 4) the breakdown of two-way communication between citizens and local government.
Absence of a public voice
In general, an elected representative encourages the public’s voice helping to raise and address public concerns. Respondents in my research reported that the gap in elected representation for such a long period of time constrained the ways and means of getting the public’s voice into local government. Community people strongly argued that “when they had no trusted allies to listen to their voice and grievances, it was natural that their degree of participation in local governance and planning process was low, and so were their voice and influence on local government decisions.” Respondents further viewed the absence of elected representatives, who are directly accountable public demands, as constraining the capacity of local government to engage citizens in democratic politics, taking public issues more responsively, and mobilising more people and communities towards a better delivery of services.
The gap of elected representatives could not be filled up by selected bureaucrats who were assuming the responsibility of the former. The bureaucrats often failed to carry out duties and responsibilities according to the public spirit, as their responsibility towards citizens is moral as opposed to binding. Emphasising this argument, one respondent reported that representatives are actors who often responded to citizens’ voice positively, as they can represent citizens’ grassroots interests, demands, and views.
More importantly, another respondent succinctly argued that “we lost our ears [leaders] to listen to our voice better. They [representatives] often used to ask about our problems and listen patiently. Now we have no means to share our day to day problems. Bureaucrats often neglected the public demand as they are not our representatives so they are not accountable to us.” Indeed, during the absence of elected representatives, the likelihood of eliciting and responding to the public’s demands in defence of public interests remained mostly absent. This is because, as expert respondents said “government rules and bureaucratic values often constrained the dare and courage to translate voice into tangible action”. Rather, they often avoided risk-taking and were more likely inclined to satisfy the conditions of the existing rules rather than the public’s voice.
Low levels of responsiveness
In principle, elected representatives are more responsive and accountable to the public than bureaucrats. However, many respondents argued that a long time gap in the representation of elected people constrained the process of collecting and responding to the public’s voice, leading to a weak form of accountability and responsiveness.
Such constraints impeded the various process of good governance, including making bureaucrats responsive to citizens’ demands and promoting the mechanisms of checks and balances in the behaviours of bureaucrats. Bureaucrats often failed to promote the very spirit of responsiveness as their line of accountability lay in central government rather than in the general public. An ex-minister emphasised that “the absence of people’s representatives resulted towards a culture of low accountability and low responsiveness trap in the functioning of local government. This is because of the fact that the people’s representatives are the agents who can hold the government accountable and make decisions in favour of the public”.
Respondents also emphasised that a long-term political void was the major detrimental factor that effectively undermined the capacity of citizens to demand quality services and hold the service providers accountable. This is simply because the elected representatives are more responsive to the public demands than the selected bureaucrats, as the former want to be reelected again. However, bureaucrats by nature are not directly accountable to the public. In this regards, respondents emphasised that “those who need not to be elected by the people, by nature, need not to be responsive to the people.” Indeed, many respondents were in consensus that the gap often impaired the capacity of local government to take bold initiatives of accountability and responsiveness, such as imposing unpopular decisions on powerful social groups for the benefit of common.
Reduced public trust in local government
Public trust in government tends to build only when the public feel that they have a voice and stake in government decision-making. However, the absence of elected representatives severely affected the trusted relationship between citizens and local government. It also undermined the potential of participatory democracy to assist with identifying and understanding public values while making decisions. Respondents reported that the gap in the representation often discouraged the general public to participate in local governance and planning processes, thinking that their participation would not make any difference in the allocation of resources in favour of the public.
It was also reported that when there was no good process of lodging complaints against the performance of local government, as it was natural that the gap between citizens and government necessarily became wider and deeper. Many respondents argued that bureaucrats could not minimise the representation gap as they were often trapped by the powerful local political and social elites who often captured the decisions and resources in favour of themselves.
Breaking of two-way communication
Elected representatives are better able to promote two-way communication between citizens and local government. However, the long-term representation gap in local government was associated with breaking the effective mechanism of a two-way communication system. Many respondents argued that such a break often distorted the process and means of articulation of a public’s demand and reconciliation of those demands with regard to effective public service delivery. The process of demand articulation was constrained as citizens had no direct or active involvement with their representatives in addressing community problems.
The process of demand reconciliation remained ineffective as there was no democratic mechanism for reasoned discussions, social enquiry, and dialogue among the key local stakeholders. Citizens often hesitated to be actively involved in local government functioning as the former had low trust that their presence and viewpoints would barely affect the decisions in favor of the public. In addition, some community people reported that they had difficulty in understanding the language of the bureaucrats and had to get aid from a third party in order to understand what bureaucrats actually meant.
Having no elected representatives therefore can invite many problems for local governance and democracy. These problems could be much deeper than outlined here, including increasingly the disintegrating democratic fabric in local governance and development process, the swelling of corruption, misuse of resources, and the erosion in citizenry oversight activities. Such democratic vulnerability faced by local government may also have constrained the very spirit of participatory local governance which can perform meaningful responsibility to serve people.
This article gives the views of the author and not the position of South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Featured photo: Crowd of human silhouettes. Credit: Geralt, Pixabay.