Shaping the new Nepal

6 min read
01 Dec 2017
6 min read
2274 words
The provincial and general elections have a lot riding on them, for their outcome could play a huge role in determining what direction Nepal will take in the coming years

The first phase of the general and provincial elections took place relatively peacefully in 32 mountain and upper-hill districts last Sunday. According to the Election Commission, the elections saw a voter turnout of around  65 per cent. Counting of the ballots, however, won't begin until elections in the remaining 45 districts are held on December 7, as early counting of votes from the first phase is likely to influence voting behaviour in the second phase. 

For Nepal, the year 2017 can be called the 'year of elections'. It was only a few months ago that local-level polls were held. The local polls had to be staggered in three phases largely because of the government's disagreements with Madhes-based forces over some contents of the new constitution. (See box for more on the constitution.) In contrast, the general and provincial elections have been staggered largely because of administrative and security reasons. This does not mean all the major differences in the constitution have been resolved, but it does mean that all the major political forces have come aboard the election process. One notable exception is the Netra Bikram Chand Biplov-led Communist Party of Nepal, an offshoot of the Maoist party. Chand's party has boycotted the elections and is presumed to be behind the recent spate of violent incidents in an attempt to foil the polls. 

The importance of these elections

If it appears that the country is rushing into elections, there is a reason for it. The constitution requires that elections for all three levels--local, provincial and general--be held within January 21, 2018. Failure to do so could have created what is commonly referred to as 'a constitutional void', which likely would have led to further political uncertainties. Until just a few weeks ago, there were credible fears that such a void might transpire. Now, it is all but certain that all the elections will take place before the deadline and that a constitutional void will be averted. 

This of course does not mean an end to the country's seemingly endless political instability. Ever since the dawn of multi-party politics in 1990, which brought the 30-year Panchayat regime to an end, Nepal has not had a government that has served its full term. Why some countries are politically stable and others aren't is a larger question in political science, which won't be explored here. But Nepal's instability seems to stem in large part from the sheer number of political parties and the inability of any single one to form a majority government. Many also argue that Nepal's sensitive geopolitical location makes it a fertile land for foreign meddling and that external forces, particularly India, have a vested interest in keeping us somewhat unstable.
Nepal has had general and local-level polls before, but this is the first time that provincial polls have been held in the country. As per the new constitution, Nepal is now a federal nation divided into seven provinces, as opposed to the earlier unitary model, in which the country was governed by the central government in Kathmandu. Of course, the centre will continue governing, but the new constitution has devolved a number of authorities to the provinces and to the local bodies. Such devolution is expected to empower traditionally marginalised groups and provide some degree of regional autonomy. There was palpable euphoria during the local polls, which were being held after a long gap of two decades. The Maoist insurgency (1996-2006) and later the protracted peace process were major obstacles to holding local polls. 

It was the CPN-UML, under its chairman KP Sharma Oli, that performed best in the recent local elections. But it is not easy to ascertain from the UML's performance what the people's mandate is. The UML, as its name suggests, is a communist party. At least, it was when it started. And it attracted many people by its communist ideology. A significant number of people have remained loyal to the UML since those days. But in recent years, the UML has been widely criticised for having swerved sharply to the right, for peddling a virulent form of hill nationalism and for aligning with monarchists like Kamal Thapa in the local elections. Without further research, it cannot be ascertained what proportion of the votes the UML got was because of people's allegiance to its communist past and what proportion was due to people's identification with its hill nationalism. 

Alliance vs alliance

Since the local polls, there have been a couple of major electoral alliances that could significantly affect the results of the general and provincial elections. The UML, this time, has aligned with the Maoist Centre, producing what is now commonly referred to as the 'left alliance'. Hot on the heels of this alliance formation came another alliance--commonly known as the 'democratic alliance'--between the Nepali Congress and a few other parties. There still are many other parties in the electoral fray, but the primary competition now is between these two alliances. These alliances have given some people hope that the country has moved towards a two-party system, which would presumably lead to much greater stability. But there is plenty of room for cynicism too. These alliances seem to be bereft of any ideological underpinnings and are based merely on political expediency. For it was only a few months ago in the run up to the local elections that the NC had formed an alliance with the Maoist Centre and the UML with the Kamal Thapa-led RPP, a right wing party that champions the restoration of the monarchy and Nepal's status as a Hindu nation. 

The democratic alliance was a completely defensive and reactional move, aimed at countering the threat posed by the left alliance. But it is the motivation for the sudden and unforeseen formation of the left alliance in the first place that is more open to speculation. Top UML and MC leaders may have genuinely believed that such an alliance would give them the best shot at winning the most seats and forming the next government. But it is also possible that they were compelled to come together by an external force. It might be a while before we can draw a more concrete conclusion. 

The left alliance's main agenda is political stability and development. The democratic alliance also espouses these goals, but the bigger agenda it carries is the preservation of democracy, which it alleges will be under threat if the left alliance forms a majority government. No doubt, all three issues--stability, development, democracy--are important for the country, but it is hard to buy into the parties' claims that only their victory would ensure these.

So what's likely to happen? 

Politics is an unpredictable game. Even with numerous and reliable opinion polls, it's hard to foresee election results. Nepal does not have many such polls. Even in a country like the US, with a long history of sophisticated opinion polls, predictions can be quite inaccurate. Donald Trump's victory in last year's presidential election was unexpected. This is not to discount the importance of opinion polls; they are useful for many different reasons other than to predict poll results. And just because politics is unpredictable does not mean nothing can be predicted. It can safely be predicted, for example, that the UML will win more seats than most parties. What is uncertain, and more interesting, is whether it will win more seats than the NC. And whether the left alliance will head the next government--most likely under Oli. That seems to be the most likely scenario. The UML is extremely popular in the hills, and together with the MC, the left alliance seems poised to win more seats than the democratic alliance. The other possibility is a government headed by the democratic alliance under Sher Bahadur Deuba, the current prime minister. That will be his fifth time as the country's PM. Deuba recently claimed that his astrologer had prophesied he'd be prime minister seven times!

But no matter which alliance garners the required number of seats, government formation, particularly portfolio distribution, is likely to present difficulties. Nepal has witnessed countless squabbles over this issue. Alliance formation before polls is no guarantee of continued unity afterwards, particularly if one is about to form the government. As such, despite the elections, political stability, and everything good that could result from it, may continue to elude Nepal.

Ensuring a lasting constitution

The elections this year are being held under the aegis of the constitution promulgated in the aftermath of the April 2015 earthquakes and amid protests in the Tarai. Dozens of people were killed in the protests. This constitution is the country's seventh one. Its supporters claim that the earthquakes brought together disparate political forces and finally gave them the impetus to draft a charter, which had already been a years-long process mired in uncertainty that it would ever be written. Critics argue that the major parties took advantage of a crisis to ram through a discriminatory constitution. There has been one amendment to the constitution in an attempt to address the demands of the disgruntled parties, but another, more substantive, amendment proposal failed to garner the two-thirds parliamentary majority required for its passage, primarily because the main opposition, the CPN-UML, deemed the proposal unjustified. Although major parties protesting the constitution have by now come aboard the election process, a sizeable section of the population is unhappy with the statute. The government formed after the polls would do well to address their grievances. Letting the grievances fester could well lead to a demand for an eighth constitution.  

Smaller parties seek to make a big splash

Among the various 'alternative political forces' in the election fray, the Bibeksheel Sajha Party is one of the more well known, at least in urban centres. It was formed in July this year through a merger--not simply an electoral alliance in this case--between the Ujjwal Thapa-led Bibeksheel Nepali party and the Rabindra Mishra-led Sajha Party. Bibeksheel Sajha has made extensive use of social media to convey to the voters its agenda of clean politics. It argues that traditional parties have repeatedly failed the nation miserably. Many voters agree. For some, the party is the only ray of hope in an otherwise gloomy political climate. Bad politics, particularly politicians with bad niyat and niti (intention and policy), is primarily held responsible for the sorry state of affairs in the country, which is not only one of the world's poorest, but also one of the most corrupt. Bibeksheel Sajha hopes to ride a wave of popular discontent and disillusionment with the older parties, but it remains to be seen how big a challenge it will pose to them. If the results from the local polls are any indication, Bibeksheel Sajha will win some seats in the proportional-representation category. Winning a first-past-the-post seat will be much harder, though. Like all contenders, Mishra and Thapa sound confident. Even if they do not win, a respectable performance by them can send a clear message to bigger parties that if they do not introspect and mend their ways, their political future might be in peril. 

(Acharya is former op-ed editor of The Kathmandu Post)