A long way to goSajha and Bibeksheel coming together is good news but their base is still very limited
Two new political parties—Bibeksheel Nepali and Sajha Party—created a stir before the first phase of local elections. To many in Kathmandu, they represented a new mode of doing politics, one that was free from the corruption and wheeling-dealing that have characterised the Nepali political sphere so far.
The parties included relatively young people with expertise in their own fields, and they offered a promise of overhauling the system and replacing it with a more technocratic mode of governance. The two parties won a fair number of votes in the Kathmandu Valley. But they failed to make much headway in other parts of the country. The parties that had dominated so much of the political discourse in the first phase of local polls were all but lost by the second phase.
It appears that this was a key factor in bringing the two new parties together. After over two months of negotiations, Bibeksheel and Sajha have decided to join forces. After all, their principles are not very different and together they can mount a stronger opposition to the larger parties. It is possible that these parties will gain further traction in Kathmandu in the days ahead. Their platforms are geared towards the urban middle class, which is less concerned with the delivery of patronage and more concerned with ending corruption and ensuring efficient service delivery.
However, it will be an immense challenge for the newly united party to gain further support in areas outside of the Capital. They face two major weaknesses vis-à-vis the major parties when it comes to attracting votes outside the Capital. First, they lack strong political organisation. People in rural areas and smaller towns usually vote for parties they believe can bring them direct benefits such as building roads or providing their children with jobs. They seek local party leaders to directly intervene with government authorities on their behalf. Further, the new parties’ principles forbid them from engaging in patronage politics, something that is essential to attract votes. They will have to engage in swift organisation building and launch a strong campaign to convince people countrywide of their agenda.
Second, the new party, focusing on a technocratic style of governance, does not have much to say about inequality. Their agenda is summed up in the acronym STEM—system, transparency, integrity and meritocracy. This is all well and good, but many people in the country, especially those from marginalised groups, look for leaders who can represent them as a group and uplift their status. This was evidenced in the recent local elections, when so many members from Dalit and Janajati groups won elections in areas where members of their community were in a majority or formed a significant portion of the population. So far, the Sajha and Bibeksheel parties have been largely urban and upper-caste. They have much to do to expand their appeal.