Bell ringing for status-quoThe November elections were more a loss for established parties than a win for newbies.
The people have spoken. Alarm bells are ringing for the status quo. The leaders of the leading parties have a choice of either realising which way the winds are blowing and correcting their modus operandi or getting swept away in the next election cycle or two. It is premature to write an epitaph on the old guard, but it is safe to say that Nepal’s national politics has taken a new turn. The recently concluded federal and provincial elections were more a loss for the established ones than a win for the newbies. The former had a chance to make it a two-or three-party affair, with some fringe parties. But their inability to deliver amid constant intra-and inter-party feud sowed the seeds of what we just witnessed.
The November 20 elections kept the leading parties’ lead, but their stature has been cut down to size. Of the 275 seats in the House of Representatives, Nepali Congress won in 89, Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) in 78, Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) in 32, Rastriya Swatantra Party in 20, Rastriya Prajatantra Party in 14, Janata Samajbadi Party in 12, Janamat Party in six, Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Socialist) in 10, Loktantrik Samajwadi Party in four, Nagrik Unmukti Party in three, Nepal Majdoor Kisan Party in one, Rastriya Janamorcha in one, and independents in five. Of this, the first seven fulfilled requirements to qualify as a national party.
Enough is enough
Rastriya Swatantra Party is only six months old, Nagrik Unmukti Party is less than a year old, and Janamat Party is less than four years old. Their combined 29 seats came at the expense of the existing players. In 2017, KP Sharma Oli’s UML won 121 seats, Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Nepali Congress 63, Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Maoist Centre 53, Rastriya Prajatantra Party one, Upendra Yadav’s Janata Samajbadi Party 34, among others. Back then, Nepali Congress got hurt as Oli and Dahal offered a unified front, and Madhav Nepal had not yet left the UML to form Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Socialist). Similarly, Mahantha Thakur’s Loktantrik Samajwadi Party had not yet split away from Janata Samajbadi Party.
Voters are craving for a change—both inter-and intra-parties. The leaders of the leading parties should take the blame for this. Going back to the dawn of multi-party democracy in 1990, the sole goal has remained how to hang onto power—by hook or by crook. Reason why Oli, who was prime minister from February 2018 to July 2021, dissolved the Parliament twice; both were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Oli’s successor Deuba led a five-party alliance, including both Dahal and Nepal. Policy-wise, the centre-left Nepali Congress and the communists are miles apart, but the common goal was to sideline Oli. This is also what led them to band together in last month’s elections.
The result is a hung Parliament. Nepali Congress probably benefited the most from the alliance, even as Maoist Centre and Unified Socialist disappointed, with the latter failing to qualify as a national party. The UML exceeded expectations, despite the five-party alliance’s attempt to crush it. Oli (Jhapa) won. So did Deuba (Dadeldhura), Dahal (Gorkha; Chitwan in 2017) and Nepal (Rautahat; Kathmandu in 2017). But several other erstwhile leading names bit the dust—Jhalnath Khanal (Unified Socialist), Upendra Yadav, Onsari Gharti (Maoist Centre), Hridayesh Tripathi (Janata Pragatishil Party), Bal Krishna Khand (Nepali Congress), and Kamal Thapa, who broke away from Rastriya Prajatantra Party to found Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal.
Kamal Thapa’s Makawanpur loss is an example of shifting voter dynamics. His decision to contest using the UML’s symbol “sun” bore no fruit, losing to his former party’s Deepak Singh. UML voters clearly did not heed the party edict to vote for Thapa, who until recently batted for a return to monarchy, which the communists fought tooth and nail to overthrow. Another example is Manushi Yami Bhattarai, daughter of Babu Ram Bhattarai, who decided not to defend his Gorkha seat so Dahal could contest there. In return, Manushi got the support of the ruling five-party alliance in Kathmandu yet lost; it is probable most of the Nepali Congress votes went to Rastriya Swatantra Party’s Ganesh Parajuli.
Pass the baton
It is difficult to cast one’s vote in favour of someone who adheres to a different set of principles. Yet, this is exactly what the leading parties asked their supporters to do. It is one thing to forge an alliance to form a government post-election, but another to do this pre-election. Many frustrated voters changed sides, embracing Rabi Lamichhane’s Rastriya Swatantra Party. Janata Samajbadi Party and Loktantrik Samajwadi Party, who politicised the Madhes issue a little too much, were humbled, even as CK Raut’s Janamat Party is now seen as an alternative force. In many respects, this was a quiet revolution. No tires were burned, no bandh was enforced, and no bricks were thrown. Voters rebelled using the ballots.
The next revolution should come from within the leading parties. Voters want this. They are hankering for new faces and new ideas. Leaders in their 60s and 70s with years of experience have, sadly, only offered stale ideas and shown authoritarian tendencies. It is hard to argue democracy is fully in practice internally. Leaders like Oli, Dahal and Deuba are hardly ready to pass the baton. Nepali Congress General Secretary Gagan Thapa, who went to the polls projecting himself as future prime minister and won, is seemingly rebelling against this practice. The sooner the veterans read the tea leaves, the better. Or, the voters will do it for them in five years by showing them who is boss.
The risk is that the ruling class will shrug it off thinking the election outcome was a one-off. Such arrogance can prove even more costly. Already, the seeds of inter-and intra-party instability have been sown. Small parties can increasingly act as kingmakers, as the leading parties need their few seats to reach the magic number 138. There will be more horse-trading, squabbling and party politics. This is not the right recipe for Nepal to benefit economically from its proximity to China and India—two of the world’s largest economies. Hopefully, the new generation understands this equation better. Message to the old guard: Do the right thing, pass the baton.