Assessing the election resultsExperiments with coalition governments have been marred by corruption scandals.
Nishchal N Pandey
Our general elections took place at a time of great turmoil in the international arena. The Covid-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, bitter rivalry between China and the United States—all have cast a long shadow over South Asia. The world is coping with geopolitical tensions, economic slowdown, rising unemployment and skyrocketing food and energy prices. Nepal too is suffering from rising inflation, liquidity crunch, unemployment, loss of tourism revenue and public frustration over poor state response. In this context, the general election was timely because it channelised people’s anger and frustration in a democratic way, thus preventing it from exploding into street demonstrations, as is happening in many countries.
The voters have spoken. Young Nepal is furious. There is a tremendous upsurge in the feeling that young people should now steer the country. Young voters are well-informed, well-connected through social media and also restless. The leaders from the old generation look tired and they are slow in making decisions and repetitive in their tone; some of them are even ill. The youths feel betrayed by this ruling class, and they want a greater role in the country’s destiny.
The other phenomenon is the voter interest in alternative politics removed from the traditional political parties. This has happened because the traditional parties have shunned change within their own structure, and are functioning more with a mentality of a “private limited company” than a political party with certain values and ideology. There has to be a greater understanding of this tectonic shift in politics and society among senior leaders who need to keep in touch with public opinion increasingly shaped by social media.
And the third, slightly worrying factor is the fractured verdict given by the people. We now have a “very badly hung” Parliament. This is because both the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) will scramble to form a coalition government with the support of smaller parties. Infighting within the smaller parties will be such that equations can twist even as early as during the elections of the speaker, president and vice-president.
Although the constitution stipulates that a vote of no-confidence against the prime minister cannot be tabled within two years of having secured a majority, any student of political science knows that a government can fall under a variety of circumstances. It can collapse if Parliament does not ratify its policy and programmes or the budget. Compounding this situation is the fact that there are also hung assemblies in all the provinces where the same malady can be repeated with equal disorder. As we saw last year, the provincial coalition governments started to tumble right after the fall of the Oli government at the centre.
Although the traditionally big parties, the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML, both hold their share of the largest number of seats, they will still need to tie up with several small parties to form a coalition government who will obviously demand important ministerial portfolios and positions in the constitutional bodies. Our previous experiments with coalition governments have been marred by colossal corruption scandals. The last thing the nation wants is political instability during an economic downturn when tough decisions need to be taken.
As our politicians look inward, trying to form and stabilise a loose coalition, there are far more crucial issues facing the nation. All our institutions have been shackled by nepotism and gross politicisation which has generated genuine resentment among the electorate. Whether it is a promotion or transfer in the Nepal Police, or an appointment in the judiciary, universities, academies, National Human Rights Commission or government corporations, the government of the day has monopolised lucrative opportunities by deliberately side-lining legitimate contenders. This has eroded the credibility of these institutions and forced the country's young talents to leave their motherland and seek employment in foreign lands.
Lethargy and passivity is seen not only in service delivery and domestic governance, but also on the foreign policy front where the balance sheet needs to be fixed. We are in the midst of a global turbulence, yet our embassies abroad are simply doing routine work without clear directions from the top. Nepali airlines have been banned from flying to Europe owing to weak safety standards, but despite nine years of lobbying and negotiations, no headway is on the horizon. Stranded Nepali citizens in the United States, Canada and the European Union had to pay hefty airfares to foreign airlines to return home during the pandemic despite the government-owned Nepal Airlines possessing two wide-body aircraft.
Once the strongest passport in the region, the Nepali passport is today so weak that it is ranked 106th among 112 countries—below Libya, Sudan and North Korea. While the strength of a passport is determined by a host of factors, including the number of countries that grant visa-on-arrival, the most distressing factor in our case is the misuse of diplomatic and official passports by unauthorised persons, and the complete indifference of successive governments to deal with this problem.
We also need to give a new drive and thrust to the overall handling of international relations to better respond to the multiple challenges in our region where the contours are unclear. Nepal has been entrusted with the chairmanship of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for an unprecedented eight years, but we have neither been able to exhibit any leadership ability to diffuse tensions nor pass the baton to the next member state. Despite being one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change and natural disasters, our performance at the recently concluded COP27 in Egypt was a mere tokenism at best.
The elections have shown that the Nepali citizenry has come of age. There are immense opportunities to be exploited if the leadership class introspects and implements effective corrective measures in the way it has been running the country. Otherwise, we will see a series of weak governments coming and going, thus leading to political instability which may even impact our infant constitution. This instability will be keenly watched both in New Delhi and Beijing—two giant neighbours who have high stakes in a messy and confused Nepal.