The November 20 elections to the House of Representatives (HoR) underlie a change in the electoral landscape. The heterogeneity of the nation’s population, parties, mixed election system and raising of rich tapestry of issues by political leaders beyond the normative spirit of constitution have produced a very uneasy situation for leaders of Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML). They habitually competed the elections as rival power blocs, craving for prime ministerial sorting, not common good. The electoral outcome, however, produced a hung parliament, with no power bloc winning a clear majority of seats in the 375-member HoR to form a new government, keep its efficiency in public policy matters and shore up political stability without enticing the cooperation of those outside their electoral coalition.
Given the poor record of running a coalition government and building corresponding political culture, it is hard to say whether the new government will complete its full five-year tenure in office, execute the mandate, rebuild the sclerotic economy and restore the integrity of corroding institutions. There are other cardinal challenges: to set the direction of government, build consensus on development and foreign policy issues and steer the political mood to nation-building. To be sure, the changing landscape will change the contents of dialogue between voters, political parties and leaders, the concept of choice and the working of inter- and intra-party democracy in Nepal. Intra-party contradictions over the leadership and generational issues are surfacing sharply in NC and Maoist Centre more than in UML as dissident voice in it is sidelined before the election.
The leaders of each pole are organising the meeting with leaders of other parties and even a grand coalition of rival blocs. De-ideologisation of political parties has opened a dollop of possibility of coalition government of any combination provided each leader can overlook other’s back-stabbing and betrayal in the past. The unfolding of a cascade of changes is wakeful for the leaders of political parties aspiring democratic stability: first, voters’ shifting support to parties and their candidates marks a lack of electoral stability in the nation. Second, the downward spiral in voting turnout from 70 per cent in the local elections to 61 per cent now is not a healthy sign for the legitimacy of fledgling democracy and constitutional stability. It is a sign of growing civic deficits.
Third, the rise of invalid voting from around two per cent in the local election to five per cent now marks a lack of civic competence of voters to cast ballot papers properly and exercise democratic choice. Vernacular media of communication, political parties, election commission and civil society have to play an active role to improve this condition and focus on the “process” of educating and empowering voters, the source of sovereignty, rather than only the “outcome” of election for leadership selection. Democracy consolidation demands the balanced efficacy of both inputs and outputs. Fourth, the reduction of women and Dalits’ representation in the direct election is flagging the constitutional spirit and principle of social inclusion and gender justice.
This shows that in no way Nepal’s election system is deemed neutral as the distribution of power in society, across the social classes and regions is skewed and the control of nomination of candidates by top leaders without deliberation and consultation with party committees indicates its patronage nature. Fifth, the usual birth of political parties either by political movement or the breakup of parliamentary parties is now moved to electoral politics. It is caused by the diffusion of information revolution which superseded the class-based politics and its binary code - friend and foe.
Sixth, the intellectual voice against the proportional election system is rising for its utilisation in the articulation of patronage politics.
Their concern is about its disproportionate size beyond the capacity of ordinary Nepalis to subsidise. It is better to limit its size before the anti-system party’s appeal forces them to rethink about it. There is an obvious puzzle as well: invalid voting has cropped up more in better parts of the region either because of lack of proper electoral choice, increasing apathy or aversion with as-usual politics than the rural areas of Himalayan districts. It challenges the political scientists’ belief that high level of education, income, communication and political prerequisites is an indicator of active political participation and high voting turnout.
The rural voters, less mobilised and cognitively less informed about national politics, applied primordial criteria because for them national party politics is remote to understand and build access to it to be heard and heeded to. So far seven political parties have acquired the status of national party with more than 3 per cent electoral threshold defined in party law — NC, UML, Maoist Centre), Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP), Janata Samajbadi Party-Nepal (JSP-N) and Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) and Janamat Party in a consecutive order. NC scored highest seats in First-Past-The-Post election while UML in the proportional election. This indicates that many voters preferred the party than candidates in the case of later.
Leaders of Maoist Centre and Unified Socialist blame the voters of NC for not obliging with the party’s electoral adjustment of coalition preference and preferred their own free choice. They think that this is the reason for their downsizing of seats but they are strongly stitched to the ruling coalition and show no sign of shifting loyalty to the left coalition government. The JSP-N and Loktantrik Samajbadi Party have been partly paralysed by their own promises, partly by their electoral alliance against whom they had viciously fought, partly by the birth of new parties and independents and partly by the shifting choice of new voters.
The emergence of new parties such as RSP, Janamat Party and Nagarik Janamukti Party reflect the youthful aspiration of peaceful change in the nature of centralised politics and paternalistic political culture, the latter two parties reflect the social bases of backward classes and indigenous Tharus. Nepali voters have exhibited mixed patterns in voting — candidates’ personality, issue voting, rational voting, partisan identification and partisan de-alignment. The election outcome also indicates that Nepali voters are looking for alternative political channels for association and articulation of their preference. The RSP reflects urban and anti-federalist mood while the other two do not show either inclination or direction. It is yet to be seen how this party will evolve given its incipient form of organisation, attitude on national issues and future values beyond high capacity for melodramatic performance.
Obviously, it aims to change the patriarchal nature of politics through inter-generational justice and the national integrity system of democratic polity. Its scope in local space is created by the victory of many independent candidates. The only question is whether it remains socially and culturally embedded or disembodied. The left space of UML, Maoist Centre and Unified Socialist lost the synergy they acquired in the previous parliamentary elections forged by the unity. This time each suffered the decline of their nearly half seats as many of their voters found no interests in their mutual accusation, split, dent on left movement and public policy delivery.
But the electoral outcome has melted their rigidity and hostility. As a result, the UML chairperson has asked Maoist Centre chair for working unity of left forces and their second generation leaders have begun opening possibilities for rewiring connections. The non-left space of NC nearly doubled the seats and honed its aspiration to lead the coalition government once again as it inches near to majority. The phenomenal rise of NC also scares all left forces as it may put them out of power and squeeze the electoral prospects in the next election. NC has garnered more seats from left space through its electoral adjustment than UML’s similar strategy to garner seats from the non-left space.
Yet the public see this trend as a clear deviation from the parties’ identity, ideology and long-term goals and confusing the voters or the constitutional imperative of the creation of an egalitarian society, except the interest of top leaders to share power. In this sense, the electoral outcome is an opportunity for the mainstream parties to reflect and do a soul-searching exercise on building a democratic and responsive party, promoting constitutional culture and fostering a culture of accountability to the people. The electoral alliance between RPP and CPN-UML ended the politics of “negation” played by the establishment for long, restored its status as a national party and provided an outlet for the expression of its demands in the parliament.
It has marked a crack in the establishment but whether it ends the politics of syndicate is uncertain. Some parties perpetually swing sides to weaken the dominant party, create contradiction within it and stay as a key game-changing player to shift the electoral and political landscape. Of course, syndicate creates a system of power bloc model and stifles lawful opposition thus fading democratic dynamics, a central propeller to gear up a functional and accountable democratic polity in Nepal.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)