Nepal’s federal and provincial elections have dealt surprise and shock to the political establishment. Held second time after the promulgation of the new constitution in 2015, the landmark polls saw the rise of new and smaller parties in a clear warning to the mainstream forces whose legitimacy is embedded in their allegiance to the republican and federal polity. Although the major parties such as Nepal Congress and CPN-UML took their lion’s share of seats in the polls, they are not in a position to call the shots on their own when it comes to forming the new government. This has risked the country plunging into another round of instability.
The elections were largely peaceful barring some cases of violence but low voter turnout (61 per cent) compared to that of local polls (70 per cent) conducted in May suggests the voters’ growing apathy for the election. This sort of disenchantment with the democratic exercise occurred owing to the parties’ failure to deliver good governance, development and social security for the people over the years despite the transformative political changes. The people’s frustration was seen in the election of the candidates of recently formed parties or those forces that have been frequently challenging the cardinal pillars of the present system – republicanism, secularism and federalism.
RSP’s stellar performance
Nepal’s every periodic election demonstrates a stunning voting trend. This time Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP), which came into existence a few months back, staged a spectacular electoral performance in Kathmandu, the nation’s political heartland, and other urban centres. The capital city bears the barometer of change and shapes the nation’s politics, economy and diplomacy. It has critical masses that have always played their important roles in triggering the major political movements, toppling the old system and installing the new one. The RSP racked up five seats in the Kathmandu Valley alone and posed a formidable challenge to the candidates of major parties in other constituencies across the country. Its chair Rabi Lamichhane won election from Chitwan with a big margin. The party has come third in the proportional representation (PR) election system after the NC and UML. Its winners consist of young faces determined to bring changes to the lives of ordinary people. It is yet to see how it impacts the national politics but one thing is sure – RSP’s emergence has heavily pressured the old parties for democratisation.
While the RSP’s youths pulled off victory in the cities, top leaders of major parties chose their home constituencies, mostly the rural areas outside the Valley, to secure their political fortune in the election. Most of the senior leaders – who are also the heads of their parties – have succeeded in the elections with impressive margins. One factor that motivates the people to vote for the top leaders is that they can bring disproportionate amount of budget into their constituencies. Funding to the pork barrel projects has enabled certain leaders to lure their voters at the expense of many backward places that are in dire need of development to raise the living standards of people deprived of basic amenities. The uneven distribution of budget has given rise to unbalanced development as well as become a part of political culture since the establishment of multiparty democracy in 1990.
Meanwhile, the NC that leads the ruling alliance has emerged as the largest party in the first-past-the-post (FPTP) category while the UML suffered defeats in the direct polls but has been able to compensate the loss through the PR votes. The NC has benefited from the alliance and the split of UML but its other two constituents – CPN-Maoist Centre and CPN-Unified Socialist – have not received the desired amount of votes from the supporters of allies, especially the NC, thanks to the surge of RSP and Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) that pulled votes from the people dissatisfied with the major parties. Their heavyweight candidates lost the polls because the top leaders gave the tickets to their cronies and relatives, undermining the elements of integrity, dedication, popularity and competency in the selection of the candidates.
The Maoist Centre still seems to be holding the key to the formation of new government but the urban voters showed their disinclination towards its candidates. The writing is on the wall for the former rebels, who must mend their ways to prove their relevance in the Nepali politics. The Unified Socialist struggled to secure 10 in HoR out of 18 seats it was allotted while sharing among the five partners of alliance but its lacklustre performance in PR election exposes its fragile organisational structure. Though this rare victory has enabled it to ride out the electoral storm, it has a bumpy road ahead. The party leadership has failed to convince the masses about the rationale behind the vertical split from the UML. Along with the Maoist Centre, the Unified Socialist had played their crucial role in safeguarding the constitution and ensuring the full tenure of HoR but it was unable to convey this message to the voters.
The dramatic rise of RPP is seen as the people’s flirtation with the conservative force dead-set to upend the republican system. Its lawmakers are likely to make the optimal use of parliament to inveigh against the malaise of the system by demanding accountability of leaders of main parties and action against corruption, thereby putting the pro-republican parties on the defensive. In a similar manner, the moves of CK Raut, head of Janamat Party, who routed Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) chair Upendra Yadav in Saptari, will be keenly watched because he rose in Terai through his secessionist agenda. If he attempts to push for divisive ethnic issues to gain cheap popularity again, it will be like setting the cat among the pigeons. However, the popular mandate provides Raut to best serve the Madhes residents within the framework of the country’s inclusive constitution.
(The writer is Deputy Executive Editor of this daily.)