Season of discontentThis year’s election has been marked by a refrain of discontent against traditional parties and their leaders.
One evening in November 1949, a Dakota aircraft flew over Kathmandu distributing anti-Rana rule pamphlets. Over the next few days, the aircraft flew several sorties over other towns, and the Ranas could do nothing about it. As former prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa wrote in his autobiography, the distribution of the pamphlets greatly assisted in spreading the word about the democratic movement.
Today, the Nepali people do not need to rely on aircraft sorties to make up their minds about their leaders. Social media does much of the job, so it was no wonder that the #NoNotAgain campaign, asking people to reject existing leaders in favour of new faces, got such traction. In a repeat of the Streisand Effect, what made the hashtag even more popular was the Election Commission’s (EC) threats to take down the campaign’s Facebook page.
Although the EC has not acted on most campaigning rule violations, particularly those committed by top leaders, the authority reasoned that the #NoNotAgain campaign besmirched the leaders, forgetting that the democratic right to choose one’s leaders also gives citizens the right to not choose. The #NoNotAgain campaign is an expression of popular discontent, and the EC’s threats to take it down reinforces the belief that the election authority—like many other state institutions—is an active participant in the erosion of democratic values.
This year’s election has been marked by a refrain of discontent against traditional parties and their leaders. Helicopter companies are having a heyday. After all, our citizens have been implored to vote for those who can afford to fly in one. The same old faces are back in our potholed lanes, doing their namastes. Jingoism is back, so are the tall promises of trains and ships.
However, there is widespread discontent among the masses, especially among the younger population, as witnessed by the popularity of the #NoNotAgain campaign. It would be a mistake to assume such dissatisfaction can be generalised into one convenient category. Rather, there are several strands of discontent which have overlapped with each other as the election nears.
The first group consists of the monarchists and those opposed to the federal secular republic. The discontent of this group, once influential via the old monarchical state’s networks, is well known. Representing the right wing conservative strain within Nepali society, it counts under its umbrella the traditional Kathmandu elite. While the monarchist strain of such politics can be labelled a fringe political demand for now, the fact that republican Nepal has decided to continue sheltering itself under monarchist ideals of nationalism means their influence on other discontented groups cannot be discounted, especially among the younger generation.
The geriatric nature of our politics means our leaders are no longer connected with the youth. One of the most revealing figures from this election is that while half of the voters are under the age of 40, two-thirds of all candidates are above the age of 40. Our leaders may believe it will be difficult to replicate Balen Shah’s victory in non-urban areas, but it would be a grave error to assume so. By rejecting those pursuing the #NoNotAgain campaign as araajak (anarchic) and labelling them as "irresponsible" as former prime minister Baburam Bhattarai has done, our leaders have shown how clueless they are about the simmering discontent among the youth, and are ignoring them at their own peril.
The third strand of discontent comes from left progressives, who believe traditional parties have weakened the federal republic and strayed from the demands that made the 2006 revolution possible. Our leaders claim to be the progenitors of the republic, but have ensured that the provinces turn into a fiscal burden on the exchequer. Women, Dalits and Janajatis have been short-changed once again. For a country priding itself on its woman head of state, women make up fewer than 10 percent of all candidates.
There is widespread frustration that the ideals of the republic have been trashed into the Bagmati, and Nepali politics has lost its moral centre by indulging in widespread corruption and middleman deals. It appears as if all the parties have made a deal to not raise corruption as an issue. Nothing else explains the absolute silence of all parties on the many scams–the Omni scam, the Baluwatar land scam, the CCTV scam—that have plagued the nation in the past five years alone. The worst part: None of it is shocking.
The last strands of discontent come from those who are peeved at losing out on electoral tickets because of coalition politics and internal party dynamics, and voters who will reject incumbent candidates who’ve disappeared from their constituencies. There are enough tales of citizens being ignored after the elections. One assumes anti-incumbency is the reason Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda decided to contest from Gorkha and not Chitwan, where his daughter is mayor.
Challenge from newer parties
The emergence of new "non-ideological" parties and independent candidates is both a reaction to these discontents, and the belief that voters can look beyond ideological boundaries and choose them. A few shock losses of the existing leaders at the hands of such candidates will not be a surprise, especially if the candidate can muster the support of the discontented. Such parties will have an edge in urban areas, as both their candidates as well as their supporters belong to the upper middle classes whose frustrations with the existing parties are well known.
While it would be presumptuous to believe newer parties and independent candidates can win a majority in this election, the question is whether the young voter can look beyond whether their parents were a Congress or a UML supporter, and vote for the candidate they deem right, a la Harka Sampang and Balen Shah, especially in non-urban and semi-urban areas. The exclusive party patronage system continues to reap rewards for its participants; but as more and more Nepalis leave the country, one wonders whether the system will bring in fewer returns in time.
Traditional parties have assumed that these discrete strands of discontent will not coalesce into a single oppositional bloc. That would be a grave error. If they do not address the discontent, the newer parties will certainly attempt to bring them together in the next five years. Whether that happens in the form of a popular party demanding the revival of the Hindu monarchy, or another that espouses even more radical thought, remains to be seen.