Crystal gazing Nepal’s next five yearsThe independents contested the election to clean up the country’s politics and fight corruption.
“No, Not Again”, cried the “independents” and their supporters campaigning for the recently completed parliamentary elections. It was a call to the electorates to reject the mainstream parties and their bosses, whom they had trusted with their votes in previous elections, only to be betrayed again and again. Once elected, the politicians used their power to enrich themselves and their parties, with little regard for the public good. They made political corruption a norm. So, independents cautioned, do not make the same mistake. Do not vote for them again. The independents included political activists who were not tied to any mainstream political parties and the recently formed Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) members.
Ordinary citizens' deepening frustration with the politicians' maleficence and their desire for change prompted the independents, well-established professionals, to enter politics purportedly to fight the politics of deception and self-enrichment. Politics, they argue, should be an act of public service, not public plunder.
No one believed they would secure enough votes to win the fight and force the change. But, to everyone’s surprise, they did win substantially more seats than expected, not enough to win the fight outright, but enough to put sustained pressure on mainstream parties to change. What will be the pathway to change? The answer depends on how the bosses of the mainstream parties read the election results.
Reading the results
To date, the political leaders of the mainstream parties have operated with a sense of entitlement and invincibility shaped by their repeated election victories and their basal view of the human psyche: Everyone has a price; the power of money is invincible; lying has no cost; public memory is short; a candidate’s character or competency does not win votes (money does); traditional party loyalty is unshakable and convenient access to the public purse is the prime objective of a political party. In this election, the voters, particularly from urban areas, refuted that modus operandi.
Sher Bahadur Deuba, the President of the Nepali Congress (NC), and KP Sharma Oli, the Chairman of the CPN-UML, both return to the Parliament, but as diminished, much-diminished men. Deuba’s mythical invincibility in Dadeldhura was challenged by a young independent candidate who did not win but garnered enough votes to rattle him. The NC appears to have lost a significant number of its popular vote (the final results of the election were not available at the time of writing). The voters dumped most of Oli’s confidants and the CPN-UML’s central committee members. The once powerful Maoist party, led by Puspa Kamal Dahal Prachanda fared even worse. It did not win a single seat from the influential urban centres of the country.
The rise of the independents was a rebuke to the mainstream parties and their modus operandi. But the leaders of these parties are unlikely to accept it as such. They have already started blaming “foreign forces and betrayal by alliance partners” for the “unsatisfactory results”. The refusal to mend their politics implicit in the blame game is likely to open several fronts of conflict in the days ahead.
The new Parliament will include the independents, a group of individuals unencumbered by the burden of history and unsavoury past alliances. They contested the election to clean up the country’s politics, to fight corruption. They owe it to their voters to revive the investigation of the corruption cases pushed under the carpet by the Oli government and conveniently ignored by the Deuba government.
These cases include the Nepal Airlines Corporation’s wide-body case, the gold smuggling case, the Covid-19 vaccination purchase scandal, the printing press purchase scandal, and others. Both NC and the CPN-UML will resist calls to re-open these files because whatever happened was under their watch and with their connivance.
The independents' credibility, whether as partners in the new government or as opposition in the Parliament, rests on how they fight the anti-corruption battle. Maintaining credibility will require the fight to be transparent. The people must be updated as to where and how the resistance is coming from. The conflict will cause instability in the Parliament and the government, and depending on its severity, possibly street protests.
A second front is likely to open up within the mainstream parties. Their less than expected performance in the election would add energy to the ongoing demand within these parties for the democratisation of the management of the party and the retirement of the ageing party bosses. In the NC, the re-elected charismatic Gagan Thapa has already announced his intention to challenge the incumbent 77 years old Sher Bahadur Deuba for the leadership of the parliamentary party. The Chairman of the CPN-UML, 69 years old KP Sharma Oli, will be under pressure to change his ways or else. The Maoist Centre’s Prachanda, 67, has reduced his once powerful party to a rump. He may have difficulty escaping an intraparty revolt. These conflicts will add to the instability inside and outside the Parliament.
The horse-trading within the ruling coalition for the cabinet post before the new government is formed will be the third destabilising factor. At the time of this writing, the considered wisdom is the alliance between the NC, the Maoist Centre, and other fringe parties will form the government. Experience shows any deal with Prachanda, the self-declared kingmaker, is a deal with the devil. He has previously made secret deals with parties outside his alliance and withdrawn when he saw better opportunities for himself elsewhere. Both the NC and the CPN-UML have suffered from Prachanda’s perfidy. This makes the NC- Maoists alliance inherently unstable and adds to the overall instability.
A positive note
Unless the mainstream party leaders cooperate with the independents in their anti-corruption agenda, Nepal could soon plunge into even more instability. The coming five years will define Nepal's politics for decades to come. Thankfully, it is not all dark.
The young, educated men and women with vision and confidence entering national politics cannot be anything but good as long as the voting public holds them to account. Don’t trust them blindly. Keep an eye on them and call out when they go astray; never forget the scar of betrayals by elected representatives.