Whose election is it anyway?Kin and clan networks will once again play a formidable role in determining victory margins.
One of the signs of a democracy’s good health is the regular occurrence of elections. By that measure, the fact that elections for local governments are being held as scheduled, despite persistent attempts by certain political groups to tamper with the dates, should be a cause for celebration, especially since the last local elections were held after a gap of nearly two decades (one can disregard the 2006 local elections under Gyanendra’s regime). There will certainly be many—both domestically and internationally—who will consider the May 13 polls as a signpost of Nepal’s successful post-conflict transition.
Such reasoning will be superficial and self-celebratory. The centralising tendencies of Nepal’s political leaders has been openly displayed in the selection of candidates. Local issues have been pushed to the background. The federal system shows all signs of derailment, with individuals even rejecting provincial representation in favour of local government. The ruling coalition has tried its best to have the cake and eat it too, with the entire population getting a ringside view of the deal making that has been a hallmark of Nepali politics.
Several commentators and reports have already pointed out that whatever the results of the elections, representation of the marginalised and women will be significantly lower than in the previous election. The candidate choices have made several local leaders and party workers unhappy, as have the nepotistic choices. The election manifestos do not say anything that hasn’t already been said. And if earlier voting patterns are to go by, one can be assured that kin and clan networks will once again play a formidable role in determining victory margins.
Candidates for whom?
Local elections the world over are usually held on local issues. While political parties usually have a say in the choice of candidates, local-level elections are considered to be a jumpstart to political careers. Candidates will mobilise at the community level, projecting themselves as best placed to solve neighbourhood issues. This should have been especially true in a place like Nepal, where social and community bonds are held to be paramount.
However, federalism has yet to evolve from the very centralising tendencies it was supposed to resolve. The Nepal Communist Party government’s weakening of provincial autonomy meant few leaders had the incentive to view provincial positions as anything but a titular placeholder. In turn, the strengthening of local governments turned political incentives on its head, with leaders—both at the central and local levels—seeking to grab hold of resources available to local governments. While the recent discourse around view towers sought to categorise it as an issue of waste of public resources, the key to understanding why such white elephants became popular is the budgetary allocations to local governments.
It was thus no surprise to find party headquarters choosing candidates at the local level. The UML under Oli has shown to be far more nimble in its selections, as it is not beholden to any electoral partner or borne down by the weight of multiple leaders and their demands. It is clear who calls the shots within the UML, even if that involves choosing a candidate with a history of inappropriate behaviour towards women and sexual misconduct as Kathmandu mayor, or a candidate infamous for backing casteist practices in Pokhara.
On the other hand, the ruling coalition’s electoral "alliance" operates under several assumptions: That the current coalition will continue to share power until November’s scheduled general elections (which it may); that the Maoists and the UML (Socialists) will be willing to play second fiddle to Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Congress in the seat-sharing arrangements in the forthcoming elections (local results may well change the dynamics); and, perhaps the greatest assumption, that Prachanda and Madhav Kumar Nepal are firm on not joining hands with Oli’s UML once again (going by communist histories, the contrary is always a possibility).
In all this, the greatest loser is the Nepali Congress under Deuba. Its only claim to fame in the contemporary political system is that it calls itself a party with "internal democracy". The rebellions witnessed in Pokhara and other units where it has ceded mayorship positions to its coalition partners tell us Deuba’s commitment to the alliance may strengthen his position in Kathmandu, but will certainly hollow out the party elsewhere. Its insistence on nepotism, at a time when organisational rebuilding is the need of the hour, will do it no good either.
Once the preferred party of the upper middle classes and the natural alternative to the royalists, the Congress today is a shadow of its former self. Like its counterpart in India, it seems to be clueless about elections and organisation in the 21st century, and comes across as an evolutionary mistake to new voters. The irony is, neither of the Congresses seems to be learning any lessons from their chief rivals.
No incentive to change
Systems change when there is an incentive to do so. The current dispensation–and federal structures—do not provide any; if anything, the incentive is for the status quo to continue. Party workers upset at seat distribution have little choice beyond voicing their discontent. They can either face expulsion, or contest as independent candidates, who rarely get traction in the face of large-scale resource mobilisation by political parties (unless they have regional strongholds). Even once independent candidates, such as the UML’s Kathmandu vice-mayor candidate—one who supposedly fit the bill of a young, modern and progressive leader—find party affiliations boosting their own political careers.
What is available to the Nepali voter now is the illusion of choice, making us believe our voting right gives us a say in the conduct of our political class. As a short-term outcome, the status quo works great for those who make the decisions. As for the future, who cares, for we are all dead in the long run.