Prof. Bhupa P. Dhamala
The eagerly awaited recent local election in Nepal is now done. Despite sporadic incidents causing minor violence, polls are mostly held peacefully. We are now settled after the rippling waves on the pond of Nepali politics. This election, like the ones that were held in earlier times, has some differences that entail subtle issues. This article aims to slightly delve into the issues and dig out a couple of unheeded implications.
Many parties were competing for the coveted posts for 753 local governments, but essentially two major parties were in the eyes of the people. While the ruling coalition partner Nepali Congress (NC) garnered the largest number of seats, the main opposition CPN (UML) followed with the second largest number of seats, just the reverse of what had happened five years ago. This is not entirely different from what had been anticipated.
This is not very surprising that NC has gained much more than any other party due to its leading position in the government. Many observers assume that NC has become stronger than before, so it will easily win the upcoming federal and provincial elections. They also think that UML has lost its previous strength due to the party split, so it may not win the upcoming elections as expected. These are the possibilities that any layperson can speculate on.
Despite the party's official denial of severe loss, the available statistics show that UML has lost a large number of seats technically, if not in terms of the number of popular votes in that degree. This will seriously influence the party strength as well as the national politics no matter how hard this party intends to rectify it. As the saying goes, it is tough to catch the bird which flies away from the grip of one's hands. There is no point in denying that this metaphor is also applicable to the field of popular competitive politics.
Valid though we may assume to some extent, it is not entirely true that UML has lost because people thought the party’s incumbent leadership was responsible for the split. If it were so, its split-away offshoot should have been able to pocket the seats the mainstream lost. Likewise, if people had entirely discarded the offshoot, the erstwhile communist voters would have only cast their votes for the mainstream. But that has not happened. One convincing implication might be that the erstwhile UML voters were frustrated with the split for which both factions were responsible. The next implication is that UML leadership has not been able to nominate its candidates based on competence, performance, and sincerity, and if it continues in like manner, it is very likely to lose more. The same applies in the case of NC, too.
More surprisingly, even some prominent party members were visibly or invisibly against the official candidates. Both parties unofficially claim that their cadres did unethical deeds by voting against the official candidates and opting for other candidates from other parties or the independent ones. If this is true, it can have much more serious implications than anything one can think of. Can we argue that the party system has been weakened, losing its gravity once it had at the time of two significant revolutions of this century? These unexpected trends within the party, if unrestrained, can have far-reaching consequences. If the existing parties cannot update their policies and rectify their behaviours accordingly, they can be replaced by other political groups led by progressive or regressive forces.
If the former forces emerge, that will be useful for strengthening democracy. If the latter powers come back, that can be undesirable for the nation and its people. The regressive forces’ coming back to power may disrepute democracy and spoil the whole system of governance. Even if the unfortunate party members reluctantly complied with the party decisions, the fortunate candidates have made utopian promises to the people in contrast to the party lines to win the elections. If they cannot fulfill their promises during their tenure, the parties will be discredited. Considering the people's ever-growing demands and constraints of limited resources, it is very likely that the winners cannot accomplish their goals. This also implies that the values of democracy are eroding much to the benefit of individuals.
In addition to the unusual practices in a party system, yet another unexpected trend appeared in this election. In place of the party candidates, independent candidates became popular in some places, including the Kathmandu Metropolitan City. People's vote for an independent candidate within the party system cannot be called a minor event by any means. Can it be that people were seeking to vote for a younger candidate or an educated person, or a skilled hand for the development of the city? If independent candidates are more popular, why the heaven are political parties necessary for the local government? The votes against the deep-seated parties opting for the independent candidates imply that people are not satisfied with the conventional parties.
Moreover, the party candidates have spent an enormous amount of money in this election, albeit not on the same scale as before. This trend can result in more unfortunate disasters. What will happen if the future elections become increasingly costly? Furthermore, what will happen if the genuine middle-class candidates go bankrupt after the election? If things continue as they have happened, politics may turn into a business-like activity. Needless to reiterate, Nepal, as an underdeveloped country, cannot sustain the expensive electoral system. It is thus essential to seriously evaluate this election and revisit the constitutional provisions with national consensus.
(The author is the chairman of Molung Foundation. firstname.lastname@example.org)