Held for the second time since Nepal adopted the new constitution in 2015, the November 20 general elections went off peacefully. Except for a few isolated incidents of disruption and violence, people voted in all 77 districts freely. However, the election did not draw the number of voters that our political parties, poll candidates, and leaders, as well as the Election Commission, had anticipated. In contrast to the Commission's prediction that around 90 per cent of voters would vote, only about 61 per cent of them showed up at polling stations, the lowest turnout since 1992, when the country held its first general election following the restoration of democracy. Only 10.09 million of 10.8 million eligible voters cast ballots on Sunday. In this year's local election in May, 70 per cent of voters cast their ballots.
According to the electoral body, the number of voters has increased marginally over the last seven months, but the number of voters visiting polling stations has decreased for this election. The lesser number of votes can have negative outcome for candidates at many places. A variety of factors have been attributed by political observers to the lower-than-expected average turnout. One reason is that Nepali voters became disillusioned with political parties and leaders who consistently failed to deliver on their promises. They believe that, unlike in local elections, where the local people's representatives won on local agendas such as road and infrastructure construction, general election candidates failed to raise issues that have a direct bearing on the lives of electorate in their parliamentary constituencies.
No fresh agenda
Parties and candidates have failed to persuade voters by introducing issues that differ from local agendas. Despite much speculation about new and independent candidates, they too were unable to draw voters to polling booths. Similarly, voters’ dislike for the same old faces, who have come under fire for not doing enough for the betterment of constituencies and residents, was apparent. Besides failing to deliver on their big promises, parties and candidates remained unsuccessful in introducing fresh issues to draw in new voters. There is another reason behind the low voter turnout - many young Nepali loved to go abroad just prior to election while a large number of Nepalis still stay in foreign countries as migrant workers.
Meanwhile, the scheduling of two significant elections — the general and local elections —over a seven-month period may have turned off some voters. Because of this, a lot of men who relocate for work or education prefer not to cast their ballots in-person in their hometowns. For a brief period, the Election Commission permitted political parties and leaders to conduct electioneering activities; however, this might have caused a negative effect on voter turnout. Another reason is that our parties, candidates and the Commission failed to conduct voter education campaigns effectively prior to the election.
Even with lower number of voters showing up, the results of election may surprise us to some extent. Preliminary vote counting has indicated that Rabi Lamichhane's Rastriya Swatantra Party will have a surprising outcome. The reason for such an outcome is that a large number young people are drawn to the new party, registered only on October 17. The well-known TV host, Lamichhane, himself contested the parliamentary poll as a candidate from Chitwan 2 and is likely to win. There are 131 constituencies where his party fielded its candidates. While his party hopes to garner sizable votes under the proportional representation system, many predict that party candidates in a number of constituencies can capitalise on the enormous popularity of their chair, Lamichhane, and win some seats for federal parliament under the first-past-the-post system.
Other parties and independent candidates that have attempted to win over young voters are less likely to succeed in unseating the Nepali Congress, the UML, and the Maoist Centre. In the federal and provincial legislatures, it appears that the coalition of the NC, Maoist Centre, and Unified Socialist will edge out rivals to win significant seats, with the UML likely to take second place. In Terai constituencies with a Madhesi majority, the Terai-based parties of Upendra Yadav, Mahantha Thakur, and CK Raut can exert influence. It's likely that some independent candidates will win.
Looking at the voting trends, it appears that no single party will emerge as the single largest entity in the federal parliament, resulting in a hung parliament. As a result, parties must reach an agreement to form a new government by sharing key constitutional and other top-tier positions. This situation is likely to consume significant time in focusing on new prime ministerial and presidential candidates, as well as understanding on other key portfolios.
A hung parliament has always created a situation in which political instability in the country is a reality. There is genuine concern that the country’s politics will once again be a victim of horse trading, backdoor maneuvering and secret deals among politicos, giving rise to a fluid political situation. Following the 2017 general election, the Nepal Communist Party, led by KP Sharma Oli, commanded a nearly two-thirds majority in the federal parliament, as well as majority in six of seven provincial legislatures. Because of Oli's inflated ego, his government collapsed after three and a half years, and his party disintegrated.
The provinces also saw the fall of NCP governments in all six provinces. The fluid situation improved only after the current coalition took the helm of the government. Given the strong bond between coalition partners, which contested Sunday’s election by forming an electoral alliance, the coalition may not fall apart when it comes to forming governments in the centre and provinces. They, particularly the Maoist Center and its top brass, as well as other parties, have learned a valuable lesson from Oli's arbitrariness, which had led to the demise of the NCP.
Having said that, the general election of November 20 must be respected as a watershed event in the democratisation of the nation's politics. The democratic process of choosing federal and provincial representatives, who would decide on policies and carry out programmes for the welfare of their constituents for the following five years until the country holds its next general elections, was respected and adhered to by a significant portion of Nepali voters, as evidenced by the free and fair way in which they cast their ballots.
(Upadhyay is Managing Editor of this daily.)