The underdogs have won. Now what?The next five years will be crucial, not just for the newer parties, but also for the older lot.
The voters have spoken. They have rejected the status quo and put their trust in a new generation of representatives far removed from the current state of affairs. The despair that was the result of misgovernance has given way to a new optimism. The difficult part lies ahead: To represent their constituencies in a way that satisfies not just voter aspirations, but also the nation at large. In this, our new parliamentarians must not falter.
Candidates from three newer parties have left their imprint on the elections this time, even as the final votes are still being counted. Among them, the Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) has received the most attention. They had a superstar candidate in Rabi Lamichhane; but more importantly, it was the door-to-door campaigning by their younger candidates, and prevalent voter dissatisfaction, that must be credited for their excellent performance. As things stand, they may emerge as the fourth largest party in Parliament, a commendable performance for a party that didn't exist a few months ago. They may well determine who is in power and who isn’t, despite Lamichhane’s desire to create a “strong opposition” and not align with the existing forces.
Lamichhane has declared his party is middle-right of the political spectrum. The RSP’s manifesto and ideologies are vague on details, but it is clear its performance is the result of the discontent against traditional parties. Their candidates cannot be slotted under an ideological umbrella either. But ideology has long seemed to be dead in Nepal; and as the election coalitions suggested, has been relegated to party names only. As Pranaya Rana, former editor of The Record, wrote in his newsletter before the polls, "This election exemplifies the death of ideology in Nepal not just because of the ideological bankruptcy of the political parties, but also because of the relative lack of ideological baggage among the young turks who’re challenging them.”
In Nepal, ideology died a quiet death at the hands of our leaders themselves. Nowhere is this clearer than in the decline of the Maoists and Madhesh-based parties such as the Janata Samajwadi Party and the Loktantrik Samajwadi Party. All three forces had a role in ushering in a federal, republican and secular Nepal. None of the three can claim to uphold its ideals today, despite whatever its leaders say.
And that is the existential question the republic faces today, in the aftermath of Lamichhane and Kathmandu Mayor Balen Shah’s open contempt towards the provincial structure.
The death of provinces?
It would be correct to argue that the provincial system is yet to show why it matters in the national polity, especially when local governments have been strengthened to a great degree. But is that the fault of the provinces, especially when concerted efforts have been made over the past five years to weaken their very existence? The chief ministers have been relegated to the sidelines, provincial demands for greater powers have been rejected, and instead of devolution of power—as was the goal of the 2015 Constitution—state authority continues to be centralised in Kathmandu’s corridors. If the chief district office continues to hold more power than the chief minister, how are the provinces to blame?
There is widespread belief that the provinces are a fiscal burden on our state. This rejection of provinces stems from the belief that the restructuring of the Nepali state into a federal unit itself is the problem. Whether such rejection comes from a monarchist affiliation or a personal disgruntlement inflated into a societal argument is not important. What is important is that it conjoins the dissatisfaction against traditional parties into a rant against federalism—on social media or in public forums. The results are now clear for all to see. The rejection of federalism has reached a critical mass with Lamichhane’s victory, and he will soon have to clearly tell the masses whether his party rejects the provincial system altogether, or whether he has plans to devolve power to the provinces as imagined by the constitution.
The mofussil and Kathmandu
Whatever Lamichhane and Balen Shah’s beliefs may be, these elections have made clear that even if Kathmandu’s urban class may reject the provinces, they matter to its denizens. The commendable performance of the Nagarik Unmukti Party and the CK Raut-led Janmat Party in their regional strongholds certainly lead one to believe that the provincial parties can still be a gamechanger in Nepali politics. Frustrated with traditional parties, regional parties such as the Nagarik Unmukti Party can embolden citizens marginalised by the centralised state structure, and can emerge as platforms where injustices against their communities or regions can be given a national voice. In effect, the Nagarik Unmukti Party is a subaltern political force whose voters are unwilling to place their trust in those parties who have long treated them as footnotes. If such parties can reject the LJP and the Janata Samajbadi Party's brand of seeking power at the centre and instead become a voice for devolution of power, Nepal's provinces will still have hope.
Raut’s victory against Upendra Yadav suggests a political scenario similar to that of the RSP, both a statement against Yadav’s opportunism and for Raut’s promises (as well as for the possibilities democratic politics offers, in contrast to his previous secessionist ideals). Traditional parties have been winning not just because they have a support base, but also because voters rarely have an alternative. What these polls have shown is that if Nepali voters are given a choice, they will make their preferences clear. Whether such alternatives emerge in the form of conservatism which seeks to uphold old hierarchies and state structures, or as progressivist forces that will strengthen the federal republic, is a question that will continue to haunt the nation unless our leaders correct their ways. But the writing is clear on the wall: If alternatives exist, Nepali voters will choose them.
These polls have sent out a clear message to Messrs Deuba, Oli and Prachanda: Perform or perish. The next five years will be crucial, not just for the newer parties who’ve made a mark, but also for the older lot. Unless they cede space to younger voices and reform existing party and state mechanisms, the newer parties will eat into their voter base. As for the new parties now enjoying a share of success, the next five years will be crucial. A focus on grassroots organisation building, and a clear divergence from traditional parties' operating structures, will allow them to build support in non-urban areas. If not, the citizen is known to have a fickle mind, and is not afraid of changing allegiances if their leaders do not perform.