Liberal political parties are the institutional bones of democracy and periodic elections a means to circulate elites of each generation and social strata in the political power. It makes the political system representative of social diversity, helps to attain dynamism and legitimacy and avoids suffering from atrophy. Election to the House of Representatives held on November 20 largely remained peaceful. They have shown certain remarkable electoral trends with the potential to make a gradual dent on the establishment devoid of legitimate opposition for a long time. Meanwhile, they also bring critical review of ideologies, organisational structures, leadership style and political culture of mainstream political parties as they appeared weak in performing their duty to serve public goods.
The first shift is seen in urban nodes, as they represent the barometer of political development and decay. Urban nodes are also melting pots and diffuse the scale of political consciousness. They are melting the tribal loyalties of people of rural areas where voters’ considerations dominate kinship, patronage, caste, ethnic affinities and personal loyalty to leaders, not exclusively to enlightened candidates or ideology of political parties. It is attracting diverse bloods to mingle in education, jobs, political associations, economy and politics to uplift the standards of life and shift the nature of as-usual feudal style politics of big men, privileges and impunity.
The educated Nepali youths bubbled from urban nodes found an imperative to change this politics rooted in the sacrifice of old leaders in successful democratic struggles yet lacking dexterity in stable and accountable governance. The difficulty of leadership succession has mired politics in inter- and intra-party struggle and retarded the progress of the nation. They seemed feeble to define the tangible vision to plan the nation’s better future, uphold personal integrity and adapt to constitutional behaviour. Another failure of old leadership lies in not providing political education to their cadres, cultivating informed public opinion so that people understand democratic principles and practice, keep a stake in them and sustain strong partisan attachment.
Their performance is marred by the absence of nomination of bright, intelligent and honest people in the political parties and institutions of governance beyond patronage selection of mediocrities and upgrade of the skill of local representatives and assembly members in matters of public policies and laws. As a result, they have remained acquiescent to fractious party leaders, bichaulias and businessmen in the hope of financing the elections. Its unchecked steps can risk repeating the old cycle of politics of divide and rule and command and control people in a top-down bureaucratic style thus inching politics to intellectual void, not energetic.
Nepal’s centralised party system led by powerful leaders has kept control over the means of socialisation, organiation and communication, supported each other in the share of power and preferred to pursue hereditary, family-friendly and patrimonial politics largely divorced from public and national interests. The second shift has occurred in the emergence of critical masses of educated youths contesting elections and aspiring to reform traditional politics of vote-buying and vote-selling. The spell of modernity, democracy and human rights, media, education and politicisation of Nepalis are eloquently serving as a countervailing power to challenge the old political culture based on power and privileges, not accountability. Information revolution driven by social media and political awareness has challenged the class-based politics of left, right and centre in Nepal and nurtured the ability of voters to judge political parties and individual leaders on the basis of their performance. Youth leadership within the parties has promised to change the party’s political culture through reforms in its ideological, organisational, socialisation and performance culture. New parties, independents and defectors have challenged them from outside. Their vociferous appeal attracted the voters especially in the heartland, Kathmandu and urban nodes where critical masses are located and they have often acted as change agents in the past.
The strong support to relatively new Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) in Kathmandu and important metropolis indicate that as a national party it has the potential to diffuse its organisational, membership, communication arteries and leadership roles in the entire nation if its elected members do not indulge in power lust and play a critical oppositional role in the parliament against the perpetuation of syndicated regime. Their flamboyant speeches and theatrical style provided them capacity to influence voters and added great reasons for change in the political culture. They, however, lack cohesive organisational strength to horizontally and vertically integrate Nepali society, parliamentary and policy making experience and, therefore, requires regular political orientation, issues socialisation and style of articulation.
Youth politicians were capable of capitalising the sentiments of voters and were given sufficient space in the media with both critical articles in their favour, dense letters to the editors including the campaign for “no, not again the old faces.” Many independent candidates, mostly young and well educated, utilized social media effectively demanding intergenerational justice in politics. The leaders of big parties have compensated for this loss through self-advertisement in the print media with paper-sized photos, interviews and sponsored articles and escaping to rural political constituencies. It also led to the fragmentation of Nepali political parties and voters. The number of parties in the parliament has increased from 8 to about a dozen representing the nation’s diversity and asymmetry of power.
The third shift in electoral politics has pushed Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal - Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) toward the centre of national politics, the latter in a weakened position in the direct election, if not in the proportional party list. This will likely reduce its previously occupied dominant status. The anti-incumbent tendency of Nepali voters in the first-past-the-post (FPTP) election has indicated a stable electoral trend. While the NC-led coalition will muster the highest number of seats in FPTP, CPN-UML is likely to become competitive in the proportional seats. Its loss of seats is caused by its split, contradictions in the party and the alliance of ruling parties.
Still, NC and UML have become successful in retaining the influence of median voters, voters in the middle, thus preventing the phenomenal surge of radical parties, if not the reformist ones. On public policies they did not differ much but on foreign policy NC raised the border disputes with China while UML raised nationalistic plank and promised to restore Nepali territory incorporated in the revised map of the nation. Rastriya Prajatantra Party with electoral adjustment of seats with UML has reared its head as a national party with more than 3 per cent of votes required with its demands of constitutional monarchy, Hindu state and nationalism and shares foreign policy with UML except in the case of MCC.
The fourth shift is marked by the declining voting turnout to 61 per cent compared to local level election’s turnout of 70 per cent, which indicates the growing sense of Nepalis’ apathy in national electoral politics. The official explanations are: harvesting season, laziness of coalition partners, lack of updated voters list, migration of voters’ abroad and mutual accusation of political leaders for their past misdeeds. Critics, however, argue that it is because of the non-performance of old party leaders, split in parties, contradiction over the alliance of odd forces, unholy leadership coalition for the sake of power, non-consultative mode of selection of candidates, status quo orientation and failing to bring change in the life of people as promised in each political change and elections. Defection of leaders from the parties has also added to the source of popular cynicism.
Owing to seat adjustments with other parties, many value-based and conscience-driven voters found it unpalatable to vote for candidates of other parties. The elections have also become a lesson for Janata Samjbadi Party and Loktantrik Samajbadi Party as to how not to play with the sentiment of people every time. New parties such as Nagarik Unmukti Party and Janamat Party and independents have challenged the social base of established parties. They along with RSP, Nepal Peasants and Workers Party, Rastriya Janamukti Party will make an entry into the parliament and challenge the politics of whip and conformity on national issues with critical and reasoned debate. Both CPN (Maoist Centre) and CPN (Unified Socialist) have diminished their size yet remain a conduit for the NC-led coalition government. Top leaders of NC, UML, Maoist Centre and Unified Socialist have won with big margin and gave continuity to their political survival but it is not a guarantee to their decisive role and run a game of politics without proper debate in the parliament as critical voices within the parties and outside will continue to haunt their political psychology. Youth leaders within their parties are claiming for elevated leadership roles in the parliament and the government.
The fifth shift is the emergence of new political parties and some independents with untested leadership attracting the voters aspiring to change the politics of the nation. They became symbols of the critique of the vices of old leaders and the promise of changing the lives and face of the nation. Many voters who found no alternative electoral choice to bipolar coalition favoured small parties and independent candidates. This shifting electoral trend indicates weakening electoral stability and growing de-alignment between parties and voters. The collapse of ideological politics marked the rise of personalisation of parties and weakening of social solidarity.
There was voters’ information, not civic education to hone the virtues of good citizens who are well-informed before casting their ballot papers, not ill-informed about politics and policy. As a result, the quality of politics suffered as leaders raised issues contrary to the spirit of constitution and ended in a mono cultural mental model owing to their common source of political acculturation despite the nation’s diversity. They need to address a cornucopia of pressing national issues, improve themselves and their communities to build the nation’s common, better future.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)