Validation of the existing orderVoters have validated the status quo with their participation as well as abstention.
It was one of the most listless elections of the post-monarchical order. Unlike in earlier polls, voters didn't have to queue up at polling stations even during morning hours. By afternoon, security personnel could be seen loitering around to overcome their boredom. Polling agents of different contestants chatted amicably with each other. Stray voters walked in and walked out minutes after casting their votes in four different ballot boxes.
The Election Commission deserves accolades for doing its job rather well despite the challenge of conducting elections for the provincial and federal legislatures simultaneously with four separate ballot papers for direct and proportional representation. Voter turnout didn't match expectations, but it was an election without ideology, issue or agenda. Voluntary participation in the ritualistic performance of democracy was bound to be low.
Elections for the first constituent assembly were held in a climate of fear and hope as the political processes to address Maoist ambitions and Madheshi aspirations were still underway. Despite the risks and uncertainties, nearly 60 percent of voters turned out to put their faith in the democratic exercise of realising the dream of a federal, democratic and inclusive republic. Within four years, the assembly fell to the machinations of internal and external actors without accomplishing its task.
An extra-constitutional government conducted the elections in 2013 with the promise of ensuring peace and stability. Voters endorsed the pledge of contestants with a 77 percent turnout. Once the Maoist leadership surrendered its political agenda through the 16-point conspiracy, the surge of ethnonationalism in 2017 brought a record 78 percent of voters to the polling booths.
This time around, there was nothing to pull people to the polls. The ruling coalition of the Nepali Congress and its four associates were utterly bereft of ideological convictions, practical programmes or convincing agendas. It didn't even have a catchy slogan to arouse apathetic voters. The UML-led opposition alliance was equally clueless about its political purpose.
The leadership of competing groups were politically indistinguishable from each other. Somewhat like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and ethnonational supremo Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli imitate each other in every way, even when they jostle for the premier position in the pecking order.
There was no political wave for or against the incumbents. Challengers had nothing on offer except their stale rhetoric of xenophobic jingoism and demagogic populism. Despite the pointlessness of the electoral process, slightly over 60 percent of voters are reported to have cast their ballots to elect the same parties and politicos they presumably despise. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the voter turnout appears to have been high, given the apathetic atmosphere.
Several hypotheses are being proposed to explain the supposedly low turnout. Most of them ring true at first glance. The disparate coalition of lapsed Maoists and decadent Nepali Congress did alienate their traditional supporters. The alliance between the regressive Rashtriya Prajatantra Party and the revisionist UML looked natural, but it blew away their monarchist and secularist covers, respectively. Both groups fielded unelectable to odious candidates from different constituencies.
There is also a general dissatisfaction with how almost all political honchos have transformed the proportional representation system into a welfare programme for their family, friends, loyalists and financial contributors. It is also possible that the self-serving ways of the leadership repelled many committed voters.
The explanation of conscientious abstainers is also plausible. Citizenship is defined as the fundamental right that makes all other rights, including voting, possible. Almost half a million probable voters were denied these rights when President Bidya Devi Bhandari violated the constitution she was sworn to defend and refused to authenticate the citizenship amendment bill. An unequal citizenship provision prohibits naturalised citizens from harbouring political ambitions in the patriarchal system.
Gerrymandering of constituencies and manipulation of provincial delineation have alienated a significant section of Madheshi and voters. Dalits have been completely sidelined. They had little enthusiasm for participating in yet another election meant to reinforce the Khas-Arya hegemony over the country.
Reasons for the disinterestedness of progressive voters are equally compelling. None of the political parties in the electoral fray is committed to breaking the structure of inequalities in the country. There is no employment guarantee for the poor. The concept of public transport is conspicuous by its absence, as the profit sector dominates every mode of conveyance.
There are different schools for the poor, the middle class and the rich. Even primary healthcare is almost entirely in the hands of the profit sector. Public health infrastructure, such as clean drinking water, safe waste disposal, proper nutrition and timely mother and child care, gets a lot of lip service. Still, the outcome leaves much to be desired, even by Afro-Asian standards. The act of voting becomes meaningless when the ballot is unlikely to change conditions on the ground.
The rhetoric coined for widespread consumption notwithstanding, the primary purpose of periodic elections is to give continuity to the extant political economy of a country. When stability challenges emerge, the status quo forces close ranks to defend the existing system. That partly explains a little over 60 percent polling.
According to the Theory of System Justification, people are "motivated to defend the status quo because doing so serves fundamental psychological needs for certainty, security, and social acceptance. We want to feel good not only about ourselves and the groups to which we belong but also about the overarching social structure in which we live, even when it hurts others and ourselves."
The so-called status quo bias, defined as the preference for maintaining one’s current situation and opposing actions that may change the state of affairs, explains the inertia and apathy of disinterested voters while defenders of the system line up in large numbers to protect the existing order. However one may explain the election process and its outcome, the fact remains that, by and large, voters have validated the status quo with their participation as well as abstention.
In the past, challenges to the status quo usually emerged from left-wing populists. Almost the entire anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism struggles in Asia, Africa and South America were led by self-declared socialists and communists. The Nepali Congress, a sworn socialist, at least on paper, was at the forefront of all challenges to the Rana-Shah regimes. Once the gradual disintegration of the Soviet Union began in 1989, and it completely collapsed in 1992, populism acquired its right-wing tone on the global stage.
Unlike leftwing populists that claimed to work for dignity, equality and social justice, right-wing demagogues claim to speak for the people against the entrenched elites inside and dangerous enemies from outside that threaten the purity and stability of 'our society'.
Supremo Sharma Oli tried to assuage the insecurities of the Referendum Generation born and brought up after the mid-1970s and appropriate this cohort with promises of prosperity. But he failed to lure the twenty-something generation of the comfortable class that wants to get rid of the pre-1990 relics in politics. This small, vocal and volatile constituency will determine the fate of legacy parties that offer nothing but sepia snapshots of forgotten struggles.