A tale of two conventionsThe public wanted the younger generation to take over the leadership from the ageing, corrupt incumbents.
In the last six weeks, Nepal held two of the most important conventions in its political calendar: One, of the country's largest party in Parliament, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), the UML; and two, of its oldest party, the Nepali Congress, NC. The conventions attracted considerable media attention. The public wanted the younger generation in both parties to take over the leadership from the ageing, corrupt incumbents; but they did not believe the conventions would do that. Near the end of the NC's leadership elections, it looked like the unexpected may happen, but it did not.
Let us start with the UML. The closed-door meeting of party delegates in Sauraha, Chitwan was the essence of the UML's convention. It was not much different from party conventions in countries with a one-party communist dictatorship. Consider the national congress of the Chinese Communist Party. It is held every five years to "elect" the party's central committee and subsequently the secretary-general (the leader). About 2,300 pre-approved delegates meet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and "elect" the party's central committee members. They then elect the secretary-general of the party. North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba and Laos replicate similar charades every few years.
In Sauraha, the UML delegates met within closed doors, gave absolute authority to nominate the party executives to the then President KP Sharma Oli. Oli unilaterally chose the party executives, announced their names even before he was re-elected, and asked the delegates to name himself for president; the delegates roared in approval. Only two dissented. This is not loktantra (democracy), they screamed, and demanded an election as prescribed in the UML's constitution. Oli relented, and an election of sorts was held. As expected, the dissidents lost heavily. Oli was "re-elected" with a near absolute authority. The UML became Oli's party. In the UML's last convention, Oli was elected by a fair and transparent election. The election became more of a sideshow performed under constitutional duress this time around. "Regressive", said a commentator.
On the other hand, the NC went to the convention with two contesting ideas. The first was that the party needed the incumbent president and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's continued leadership to take it to the future. Opposing it was the view that Deuba is incorrigible; he has driven the party to a new low, and the party needs to let go of all the older generation leaders to move forward. Besides Deuba, Bimlendra Nidhi, Kalyan Gurung, Prakash Man Singh and Shekhar Koirala contested the party president's election. The four candidates opposing Deuba publicly stated a few days before the election that should the first round prove inconclusive, they would support Deuba's closest rival in the second round. The battle cry of Deuba's opposition sounded like "anyone but Deuba". This was no surprise. Most of the contestants had been vocal critics of Deuba for several years; Singh, in particular, for over 12 years.
The NC constitution uses a majority formula to elect its president. Accordingly, if none of the candidates wins a majority of the votes cast (over 50 percent) in the first round of voting, a second round is held between the two top vote-winning candidates. Other candidates are eliminated from the second round. Deuba secured the highest number of votes in the first round, but it was short of the 50 percent required for a clear victory. Koirala was a close second, with other candidates trailing far behind. It looked like Koirala was going to win in the second round with Singh and Nidhi's support.
At midnight before the second round, Singh and Nidhi struck a deal with Deuba, reneging on their public commitment to support Deuba's nearest challenger—in this case, Koirala. Deuba was re-elected. But several young candidates opposed to Deuba won, including the powerful posts of general secretary and vice-president of the party. In addition, a large number of young activists were elected to the central committee of the party. An overwhelming majority of the NC's new executives are young, full of energy and ideas. Almost 40 percent were opposed to Deuba's presidency. They have promised to ensure that the party strictly follows its constitution from now on. They will not let the party be run as its president's fiefdom.
The convention has shaken the stranglehold of the older generation on the party. Finally, the transfer of power to the younger generation appears to have begun. Deuba's opponents did not get everything they wanted, but they proved change was possible. They also showed that the party's long tradition of entertaining claims to leadership or privileges, based on the claimant's seniority or familial connection to a popular leader, is no longer tenable.
Dynastic entitlement: Sujata Koirala (candidate for vice-president), daughter of the late prime minister Girija Koirala, along with Singh and Nidhi, both sons of venerated NC leaders, lost by a considerable margin, thus indicating dynastic entitlement has no place in a leadership context. Shekhar Koirala performed better than expected because he worked to expand the party for four years. Work counts, not political lineage. The senior most member in the NC, Ram Chandra Poudel, argued for unanimous support of Deuba's opponents to bid for the party's presidency based on his seniority. Singh cited his seniority in the party to justify running against Koirala. The voters rejected both of them. Seniority does not win the leadership. And while Singh has cited the "sacrifices" his family made to justify his decision to contest for president. The voters rejected his argument. The clear message was politics should be a selfless public service, not a transactional business.
The UML conference was a setback to intra-party democracy and a disappointment to those looking for a change in the UML leadership. The NC convention generated a new hope of reformed, honest politics. The election of many young people to the NC's executive and central committees may have a rollover effect on other parties. Should it happen, it would be inspiring! But the Nepali people have been disappointed before, many times. At the last minute, Singh and Nidhi's reneging on their commitment to oppose Deuba shows that political leaders cannot be trusted. There is no honour in their words. We must hold the young leaders who are now in power to account to ensure we are not cheated again.