June 27, 2017
KATHMANDU, NEPAL – In the lead up to Nepal’s first local elections in 20 years, there was hustle and bustle here at the office of Bibeksheel Nepali. The young political party, with the slogan, “the country will not be built until the young generation comes forward,” was sending out forces to canvass for 21-year-old Ranju Darshana, the party’s candidate for mayor of Kathmandu.
Darshana wasn’t elected to the high-profile job of mayor of Nepal’s capital city – she was beaten by a long-time politician – but her candidacy still is seen as a victory for her party. Her third-place finish, with 23,439 votes, came just after candidates from the country’s two largest parties – the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and the Nepali Congress. While Darshana lost, Kathmandu’s deputy mayor post went to a woman, Hariprabha Khadgi Shrestha, and change continues as 5,252 women won seats on 283 city and village councils in the first of three phases of local elections.
Twelve of those women will take a seat as mayor in their towns and villages, and 214 more women won spots as either deputy mayor or vice chair in the first phase of the nation’s historic local elections, says Surya Prasad Sharma, a spokesman for Nepal’s Election Commission. Altogether, women won 40 percent of the open seats in the first round, held in May in 34 of Nepal’s 75 districts. Another 7,000 women are expected to win seats when the rest of the country goes to the polls in the second and third rounds of local elections on June 28 and Sept. 18.
The women standing for election are an important part of the political change incorporated under the nation’s 2015 constitution, and the elections are a key element of moving forward as the nation struggles with forming a representative government to replace its 239-year monarchy.
When the final tallies are in, some 36,639 newly elected officials at the city and village council levels will take over local decisions, and, under the 2015 constitution, at least 13,000 of those seats will go to women. Current officials in those positions were selected by bureaucrats.
The local elections are the first of three election levels that must take place before Jan. 21, 2018, to complete the nation’s transition to democracy. (Read GPJ’s previous coverage on the Nepal elections here.)
While discussions concerning groups that believe they should have more equitable representation are ongoing (read GPJ’s previous coverage here), a legal provision in the constitution makes room for women to take elected jobs at local, state and federal levels. It requires political parties to nominate women candidates for either the chair or vice-chair for village councils or for mayor or deputy mayor for municipalities. This mandatory provision is meant to ensure female representation in local units.
Similarly, for every four members elected in each ward of the village council or municipality, two must be women. Thus women will be part of the local government in all 744 local areas. Spots are reserved for women in both the executive and legislative branches as well.
The representation of women is ensured in all three tiers of local government – at the village, municipal and district assembly or district council levels.
Women will also have at least 33 percent representation in the federal and provincial legislatures, and after all votes are counted, some 13,500 to 15,000 women likely will have seats in local elected offices, says Tika Ram Bhattrai, a constitutional law expert.
However, while more women will have a direct say in government, he notes that women will still be far from in charge of the nation.
“There would not be any structural change until the means of production is in the hands of women,” he says. For this to happen, he says, more women would have to own land, factories, firms and industries.
He also noted that while the constitution provides representation for women, it doesn’t require that any of the women be poor. So, while women will participate in the leadership of local bodies, he says, “if we see it from the representation point of view … such representation will not [automatically] play an important role on addressing women’s issues like poverty alleviation.”
Sarita Shrestha, executive director at Asmita Women Publishing House, Media and Resource Organization, a nonprofit women’s advocacy group, says political parties tend to promote male candidates when it is likely they will win against other parties, and nominate women as required when their party is likely to lose.
Oftentimes, she says female candidates aren’t competitive because the women running for election have either retired or could not succeed in other professions so they have been attracted to politics to seek opportunities. Shrestha also called on political parties to nominate disabled women and sexual minorities to ensure their representation in local units.
She says the women elected for local units will have representation in a real sense only if there is a meaningful role for them in the local government. For this, women need to become politically active at a younger age, she says.
Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal
Newly elected deputy mayor of Kathmandu Hariprabha Khadgi Shrestha encourages all women “to participate in politics and political affairs and to become involved in business and entrepreneurship. It will help for all dimensions of empowerment of women.”
Ujwal Thapa, president of Bibeksheel Nepali, says that his party fielded Darshana not because she was a woman but because she was the best candidate for the Kathmandu mayoral post. He says a survey by his party of 1,700 respondents showed most were seeking a young mayor to address Kathmandu’s problems – intermittent energy outages, water scarcity, air pollution, proper drainage and sewage. Darshana had worked for the party since she was 18 and participated in rescue, relief distribution and dead body management following the 2015 earthquakes.
Even though Darshana lost, waging a campaign in Nepal’s first elections in 20 years was an important step.
“I feel more responsible towards voters as they trust me and cast more votes than other older parties,” she says. “I learned the way to connect with people and establish long-term relations and an expanded network.”
And expanded networks, she’s learned, are powerful assets when it comes to winning elections and creating change.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sarita Shrestha and Hariprabha Khadgi Shrestha are not related.
Sagar Ghimire, GPJ, translated this article from Nepali.