By-election 2023: Swing voting or polarisation?The use of informal networks, rather than open policy debate, is still a key to winning elections.
The poor performance by five out of seven national political parties in the recent by-election, except the Rastriya Swatantra Party and the Janata Samajbadi Party, is not an entirely new phenomenon in Nepali politics. In fact, various political events are leading us toward a new kind of political polarisation. We have witnessed the surprising and powerful performance of the new parties in recent elections; for example, the (now) Maoist Centre and regional parties in the 2008 Constituent Assembly election. The ups and downs of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party in the past few elections and the landslide victory of independent candidates in the country’s capital and other cities in the local election in 2022 are also some other major examples.
The rise of the swing voter is a common approach to explaining the electoral success of independent candidates and new political parties where party patronage used to be strong. It happens through gradual departicisation, where a large number of voters are not committed to a candidate or party before the electoral campaign begins.
Particracy will be the best term to explain Nepal’s democratic practice since the 1990s: A political system where political parties are the primary basis of rule. They have a monopoly on access to power and government resources. It is much easier for a political party member to get public goods and government services than a non-member citizen. The civil society domain becomes a battleground of partisan competition and misuse.
Being a member of any political party becomes a compulsion rather than an option for citizens to get proper public service. Individual benefits, mostly material ones, offered by the candidate or political party, remain the first determining factor in changing support for a political party or a candidate. Political parties try to expand their organisation to each and every sector of society so they can get votes without burdening individual commitments in the election.
Though socioeconomic development, an unprecedented rise in the culture of working abroad, and an increase in the number of jobs in the private sector have contributed to decadence of party patronage, we can’t claim that Nepal is experiencing a rapid rise in swing voters. The swing voters are generally undecided in the pre-campaign period. They decide the candidate by comparing the candidates’ personal backgrounds, policies, and programmes presented during the campaign.
The Nepali case is different, however. Partisan identity still remains silent in Nepali politics as well as in society. Both old and new political parties claim that their members are increasing. They compete for expanding organisational structures in society and increasing the members. There is no decline in total active members of political parties. What we are witnessing is simply a partisan shift of active members.
Moreover, we still do not have a large number of “issue publics”—individuals who pay attention to particular issues—who only consider the policy and programme of candidates and political parties while voting. Both candidates and voters are active where the number of issue publics is large. The candidates—and by default electoral competition—actively promote policies and programs. The voters actively seek information to decide on the candidate and party.
Neither is this our contemporary situation. There is little change in the electoral campaigns except for the use of technology and new media. Candidates are equally active, and voters are equally passive. Except for a few events, the one-way communication between candidates and voters continues. Neither is there any change in the attitude and role of active members of political parties. The use of informal networks, rather than open policy debate, is still a key to winning elections.
So, what is happening here? The preliminary discussion and analysis show that Nepali politics and society are ahead of a new kind of polarisation. Historically speaking, Nepali politics was highly polarised in the early 1990s. The partisan identity—simply Communist and Congress—has an unprecedented and absolute impact on many, if not most, social activities. The whole society was divided into two poles. The rise of Maoists, the active political role of the King, political movements based on ethnic and regional identity, and the long process of constitution writing have eroded such divisions.
In fact, these series of events have gradually transformed the ideology of political parties as well as political culture. Many, if not most, major political parties arrived at the same pole in terms of ideology, policy, programme, intra-party democracy, and so forth. The political framing or branding in the opposition pole—where they do not have a strong competitor—has become easy for any new group or political party claiming itself as an alternative force. And this has become a regular phenomenon in Nepali politics since 2008.
We are in a very early phase of polarisation. Outwardly, the discussions are centred on a few important political agendas: Responsibility for the slow speed of economic development (and even mistakes done in the past), commitment to reform, including revision in federalism, meritocracy, the active role of the state and so forth. Indeed, this kind of healthy political discussion does not lead to polarisation. Along with the rise of new political agendas, the appearance of a few additional phenomena is accelerating political polarisation.
First and foremost, partisan identity is again becoming key to judging an individual’s capacity and morality. We are creating a new dichotomy: Only inferior individuals support traditional political parties for material benefits, versus only immature individuals support new political parties. Second, the politics of hate and emotion is gradually expanding its space and impacting our social discussions as well as our relations. The use of unpleasant and emotional words in politics is rapidly increasing. Third, we are boosting generational conflict. We are establishing that the different generations understand power, ideology, culture, and so forth entirely differently. Unless the young people come to power, their preferences will not be represented. Knowingly or unknowingly, we are creating this kind of dichotomy in several sectors of politics and society.
A certain level of policy debate is necessary for both political and economic development. Lack of such debate creates monopoly of leadership in respective areas, which we have experienced for decades. But we must not encourage political polarisation; it ultimately leads to populism. We can’t get an excuse for another experiment. It is time for an open discussion: Where are we? Where are we heading? And, where must we go?