The outcomes of recent by-elections in Chitwan and Tanahun have set alarm bells ringing for the major political parties. The landslide victory of Rastriya Swatantra Party’s (RSP) candidates – Rabi Lamichhane and Dr. Swarnim Wagle – put the ruling coalition and main opposition, CPN-UML, on the defensive. The alliance succeeded to save blushes in Bara where their joint candidate - Upendra Yadav of Janata Samajbadi Party - got elected, defeating his rival from Janamat Party. The poll results have triggered a new debate – the major parties like Nepali Congress and UML should either rectify themselves or be ready to get eliminated. If this voting pattern continues till the upcoming three-tier poll in 2084 B.S., it will certainly pose an existential crisis to the old parties.
Many argue that their condition will be that of Indian National Congress, which was once an all-powerful party of India but is now struggling to prove its relevance in the national politics. Lamichhane won polls by a wide margin in Chitwan for the second time within a span of six months, which was beyond the expectations of major parties. Disappointed by the lacklustre performance of the mainstream parties, voters revolted against them. Many people in Constituency-2 of Chitwan have an impression that Lamichhane was relieved of the post of lawmaker over the citizenship issue as a result of conspiracy to thwart his pro-people agenda. So they voted for him to give a fitting reply to the big parties.
Battle of prestige
In a similar manner, Wagle’s dramatic exit from Nepali Congress, entry into RSP and then triumph from the NC’s stronghold in Tanahun gave a jolt to the country’s oldest democratic party. The election was a battle of prestige for the 8-party alliance. NC general secretary Gagan Thapa was shocked and surprised when Wagle deserted him all of a sudden. Both were working together to transform the party and scheduled to get engaged in a nationwide campaign soon for the purpose. Former World Bank economist wanted that the party would utilise his expertise on economy and development for the benefit of the country.
Much has been written about the spectacular success of RSP and its implications in the Nepali politics. Many insist that RSP capitalised on people’s frustration with the old parties. It contested the polls on the plank of anti-corruption crusade. RSP chair Lamichhane has already said that his party is mulling to withdraw its support to the current coalition government, citing that its Common Minimum Programme (CMP) did not include the anti-corruption agenda. But it is yet to see how the emboldened RSP will burnish its image as pro-reform party in the parliament.
Nonetheless, the political tsunami, brought by RSP’s victory, has already reverberated in the mainstream parties. This has forced them to mend their ways. But old habits die hard, goes a popular saying. They have been habituated to capitalise on their contribution to different political movements but transform themselves. It is true they have played their crucial role in establishing democracy, and republican and federal system. Nepali people had recognised their role by voting them to power in the aftermath of political upheavals.
For instance, NC secured two-thirds majority and comfortable majority in the general elections held in 1959 and 1991 respectively. Similarly, CPN-UML emerged as the largest party in the 1994 mid-term polls. The then CPN-Maoist had clinched a sensational victory in the first Constituent Assembly elections in 2008. The people cast their votes to the former rebels hoping that durable peace and stability would prevail in the country. In the three-tier polls held in 2017, the then Left Alliance of UML and CPN-Maoist Centre pulled off a thumping victory, allowing it a huge mandate to consolidate the federal system and bring about socio-economic transformations.
But the parties often frittered away the historic opportunities of grand nation-building drive much to the chagrin of the commoners. They are themselves responsible for pushing the country into instability by dissolving the parliament prematurely. The present federal dispensation hit a bumpy road after the dissolution of House of Representatives (HoR) twice within a period of six months. Fed up with the behaviour of big parties, people have perhaps sought an alternative force like RSP so that the country will move in the right direction and their genuine concerns are properly addressed. This electoral shift is a clear warning for the parties to reform themselves and feel the pulse of the general public.
As the parties suffer humiliating drubbing in the polls, they start to talk about reforming and restructuring their organisations but such idea often vanishes into thin air because a sort of amnesia grips them soon after. Top leaders are reluctant to give up posts, perks and powers they have been enjoying for decades, which obstructs the youths from reaching the higher rung of leadership. Inner-party democracy, broad debate on the public policy, expansion of political education, listening to the feedback of lower committees and entry of fresh faces into the organisations are necessary for a dynamic and vibrant party. But major parties these days run under personal authoritarianism that deprives them of the common touch.
The RSP candidates bagged the votes of not only the neutral voters but of those who used to cast votes for the NC, UML and Maoist Centre in the past, a development that has sent a chill down the spine of top stalwarts. Some see RSP as an alternative democratic force. Those who call themselves as ‘democrats’ but do not want to support communist parties are likely to opt for the RSP. Not only this, but also the NC leaders and cadres, who have been sidelined in the party, can join the RSP for brighter political prospect. Of course, the RSP has given hope to Nepalis willing to see positive change in their own life. But it is not in a position to call the shots. It is easy to cash in on the public disillusionment but it is equally difficult to address them. Therein lies a greater risk. The people’s disappointment may further grow if their aspirations are not fulfilled.
(The author is Deputy Executive Editor of this daily.)