Interview Krishna Khanal: Left alliance energised voters but their vote wasn’t for a single partyIn 2017, Nepal witnessed the completion of three levels of elections that will help it move out of the transition phase into a federal democratic republic.
In 2017, Nepal witnessed the completion of three levels of elections that will help it move out of the transition phase into a federal democratic republic. With the left alliance between CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Centre) being the victors in the federal and provincial elections, the country is looking forward to ushering in a new government that promises to deliver stability for the next five years. Mukul Humagain and Kamal Dev Bhattarai talked to political analyst Professor Krishna Khanal, over his reviews of the past year, and his outlook on the future.
This year, we’ve had elections for three levels of governance, and the country has all but entered into the federal republic structure. How would you review the year 2017 in terms of Nepali politics?
I did not think that 2017 would end with all that we have politically accomplished. Yes, we did have a political agenda to complete this past year (such as completion of the three levels of elections). However, with the way things looked even until June or July, I am really surprised that the elections were held successfully by the end of the year.
All that we have accomplished should prop up this past year as being a historic one. Since Nepal made a drastic change in its political landscape in 2006, these elections can be marked as the third major event—the first being the beginning of the peace process in 2006, which was then followed by the forming of a new constitution. This is the end of a phase, though by no means has everything been resolved. This has been an opportune year for things to fall into place. Since the constitution was ratified in 2015, we didn’t have to wait till 2017 to conduct local level elections—yet all levels of polls were finally held this year. There was also the question of the Madhes protests and the Madhesi parties demand for constitutional amendment. Though we have not seen any concrete change towards fulfilment of Madhesi parties’ demands and the constitution has not been amendment, by the end of 2017 we witnessed that entry of Madhesi parties into the electoral process that they were initially boycotting. It doesn’t mean that the Madhes issue is over, but the parties did come to realise that the way forward is through constitutional means.
You mentioned that the elections being held marks the end of the transition phase, which began in 2006 when the decade long civil unrest gave way to the peace process.
The transition process has many arms. What I mean to say is that with the constitution being promulgated and elections being held, we are at the end of one of the arms of this transition. Even as we are at the end of 2017, or the beginning of 2018, we still haven’t seen the new federal parliamentary structure being implemented. We are still being run by a transitional government too. The President and Premier currently in office have been elected under transitional provisions of the constitution. However, I do believe that the majority of the political part of the transition process hadsended. The constitution also has an entire chapter on the transition phase ending after elections are held to bring in the new federal governance structure, and that too is near completion now—it is just a matter of weeks before the new parliamentary structure and a new government is in place.
When the constitution was promulgated in 2015, the Madhesi parties, like you mentioned, decided to not support it. They wanted amendments to the constitution. You explained that with time, 2017 saw the Madhesi parties enter into the electoral process even without demand fulfilment. How did the issues crop up, then subside, and in what ways do you see the demands of the Madhesi people being voiced in the future?
After the promulgation of the constitution, we definitely fell into a political spiral. It reached a point where the entire populace faced great difficulties due to the economic blockade. And this was because India did not accept the political situation here. We did have our arguments of being a sovereign nation, but we could not convince them otherwise. Now, I’m not saying that the Madhesi issues are not valid. But the issues were definitely made into an excuse by our neighbours. Such tactics of diplomacy were used by our neighbours then that are not even used during war. We had no functional routes for trade besides through India, and they blocked our only trade route. But because Nepal took a stand supporting its new constitution, even India had no room for negotiations but to seek the changes it wanted through the constitutional process. I think the Madhesi parties also learnt a lesson that, to see the change they want (even though their demands are genuine) they could not rely on external pressure alone and had to join the constitutional process from within.
The results of the provincial and federal elections showed that the people have given their mandate to the left alliance. How do you read the results?
The agreements that were in place between the three major parties during and after the constitutional implementation were broken. Nepali Congress was not in the same page as the CPN-UML and the Maoists. The way the three had originally planned to hold off on elections did not occur, with NC calling for elections immediately. Now, due to the Indian blockade, the landscape in Nepal had changed to one supporting a “Nationalistic” brand of politics. The anti-India sentiment post-blockade has been used by political forces, with the UML being the political force manipulating this sentiment and with KP Oli being seen as its leader. This overall situation had an effect on the elections. However, the effect of was underwhelming. UML would have completely swept local elections if this brand of politics had been entirely successful. However, the Nepali congress has managed to keep its political presence almost everywhere in the local level.
Hence, the UML had to rely on an alliance for provincial and parliamentary polls. The way Proportional Representation (PR) contributes to 40 percent of seats in Parliament, it is practically not possible for one single political party to win an absolute majority. Since 2006 at least, Nepal’s parliamentary structure has essentially been divvied up between three forces—UML, NC and Maoists. Now, we are seeing the emergence of a fourth block, which are the Madhes-based parties. So, an alliance to win majority seats in Parliament makes complete sense when discussing national politics. The left alliance may or may not be the special alignment of like-minded forces to bring about political change, but an alliance makes sense. And a pre-electoral alliance makes more sense because, though legally and constitutionally allowed to do so, it will be very difficult for pre-electoral alliances to break apart because voters will be watching ahead of the next round of elections.
Unfortunately, the NC-led alliance was not really viewed as being strong enough. But for stable politics, two stable alliances are always needed. India for the past two decades now has been run by either a Congress-led alliance, or a BJP one. Some people also viewed these elections as a contest between communist and democratic forces. However, I do not see Nepal being run on ideology based politics anytime soon. The communist parties are so in name only, and the parties’ philosophies do not retain much of the communist rhetoric anymore. Neither is there a pro-India or pro-china rhetoric here. There was no need to paint the left or Democratic alliance in any ideological colour. They were both just pre-electoral alliances.
What was instrumental in the Left Alliance’s handsome showing—UML’s nationalist stance, promises of stability by the left alliance, or was it simply because of the NC’s multiple shortcomings?
Though not entirely, you do see the ‘nationalist’ stance, as espoused by the UML, contributing to winning votes. You also see people who do not entirely understand politics being intrigued and charged by the idea of a single alliance. I also saw a lot of leftists, who had become estranged with both the UML and the Maoists, see this alliance with renewed hope. If there had been a significant time-gap between local elections and the provincial and federal ones, we may have seen a different result. However, for a lot of people who either voted for the UML or the Maoists in the local elections, it was as simple as picking the combined left alliance this time. They did not have time to see whether their choice for local representatives was the correct one before they had to vote for representatives for the higher level. Also, the stability that the left alliance espoused was something that the people have been looking for a long time. People had been trending towards benevolent authoritarianism for a while now. While the people would not believe that the UML could bring stability alone, the idea of an alliance of two major parties with similar ideologies combining to form government was appealing to Nepali voters. The Nepali Congress was also unfortunate to have been labelled as the incumbent government. The other thing was that the Nepali Congress has been given the people’s mandate multiple times, and it hasn’t been able to transform this into stability. It’s not that Congress has not delivered at all. In fact, most of the economic policies implemented currently were introduced by the NC. Even after a radical communist party in the Maoists formed government multiple times, it was not able to change the basic policy, away from what the Nepali Congress had delivered.
Why then has the Nepali Congress faced its worst ever defeat?
The formation of the left alliance completely changed the environment of the elections. If you look at the FPTP results, the left alliance’s common candidates basically received the support of the entire voter base of the UML and the Maoists. In the PR elections, where every party contested independently, you see that Nepali Congress is not far behind. Also, the NC currently does not have the skill set to sell its policies. In an era where politics is closely followed by the mass media, the top-most leaders of the Nepali Congress are not capable of dealing with the media. PM Deuba, though this is not a personal attack, does appear to have poor communications skills. It’s not that the NC does not have members who are media savvy but everyone looks towards the top leader of any organisation. On the other hand, KP Oli is a great communicator. Whether you agree with him or not, his messages are always substantive and captivating.
Another important point here is that democracy always has the need for an open party based on mass politics. I personally do not think that the cadre based politics and democracy go hand in hand. Nepali Congress is called a mass party, but this is not entirely true. There needs to be a platform to talk directly to the people. Now, the UML is slowly turning into a mass party, even though it has its base in the cadre system. The Maoists meanwhile haven’t been successful in coming out of this cadre mentality at all. The salient feature of a mass party is that you do not need cadres to link the party to the people.
In a mass party, the leaders and their agendas connect the people to the party directly. Cadre based politics allows for perpetual middlemen to impede access to leaders, whereas mass based politics only has volunteers that follow leaders and assist them in campaigns. So, the NC, being aligned to the mass party system, does not have a strong group of cadres to pull votes. And, being a democratic party, also allows room for more differences in opinion between its leaders. There are Congress leaders who have spoken out against the republican system, against secularism, even though the party itself supports a secular republic in Nepal. People perceived the party to be directionless when leaders were espousing diverse ideas, when they should have shown a united front for the elections.
What is difficult for the NC is that the left alliance has won some seats with a 50 percent margin, whereas most of their wins have come with narrow margins. While it is difficult to defeat a candidate that has popular support in the next election, a candidate with marginal victory can be easily defeated.
However, looking at the PR votes, we can see that the Nepali Congress as a party still has the support of the people. We do not need to focus on the ideological differences, or call this a communist victory.
We just reviewed everything that happened in 2017. What are the responsibilities of the parties in 2018?
Once the new government is formed, a no-confidence motion against the government cannot be lodged for two years. So, if the left alliance does not break apart, we have the opportunity to wait and see whether the new government will deliver on its promises in the next five years.
After the structural transformation, the parties need to focus on the process of functionality. People have been asking how the provincial governments will function without proper infrastructure in place. The people have also been blaming the Prime Minister for the delay in the transfer of power. However, it is the process itself that is delaying this transfer. There is no real constitutional case for the Election Commission to delay in publishing its results.
Now, the process of forming a new government may take another month to complete. And it has already been a month since the first phase of federal and provincial polls were done with. This is a sign of underdeveloped politics, and has never happened in Nepal before. We have reached a point where the idea behind the left alliance has begun to wane.
Now, let’s focus on prosperity. KP Oli wasted no time, once a left alliance’s victory was assured, to go to Rasuwagadhi and declare his intentions to build a railway line that would better connect Nepal with China for trade and transport. However, China has already said that it will be 2020 before a functional railway line to Kerung (across the border from Rasuwagadhi) is complete. The terrain in Nepal makes it much more difficult to build railways here than in Tibet. So Oli needs to start work on the project immediately to fulfil his promise.
Being landlocked, Nepal’s prosperity depends on adding such linkages to China, not to mention the completion of massive hydropower projects. But the government will have to deliver on such tangible ideas in order for Nepal to attain prosperity. As it currently stands, our bureaucracy will not be able to deliver on these prosperity dreams. We also have not seen anyone demonstrate the capacity for project management. We have not been able to complete the mere 30km Mugling-Narayanghat highway, for instance.
Do you foresee a troublesome relationship between the Centre and the provinces?
We have not prepared ourselves for the distribution of power between provincial governments and the federal government. The biggest gap stemming from this will be seen in Province 2, where the parties forming government will be different from the parties forming federal government, and will also have a different outlook on the constitution. Later, I see a great friction emerging between the Centre and provinces on financial resource allocation. Federalism is multi-dimensional, and we will see multi-dimensional challenges in this implementation. The Centre needs to be able to manage provincial expectations. There also has to be cohesion between internal relations and public projections among leaders, something that is currently lacking in Nepal.
Any other trends we need to look out for?
Another trend I notice is that people look for validation from the international community after every election. But if independent international observers have validated the fairness of any election, we do not need to look outward for additional confirmation. Elections are a regular occurrence in a democracy. I’m sure the international community is closely following whether the country will turn communist, and I feel that they have been assured of the democratic process. However, the new government should take heed to seek a balanced approach between our two giant neighbours, and not take either relationship lightly. It is the responsibility of the new government to talk to both our neighbours, and not use either as reasons for our internal and diplomatic failures. Even China has started to become assertive in its Nepal policy, with regular statements on Nepal coming out in the media. Xi Jinping is being hailed as “the most ambitious leader” in China, while India’s already conservative security stance on Nepal makes clever and balanced diplomacy all the more important. 2018 must be a year of performance.