Tales of the far westThe focus is on marginalised groups as they contain a large number of swing voters
The country is in the midst of election fever, and party leaders and candidates are busy campaigning. During the two Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, the agenda was mainly related to the constitution. Since the constitution has already been promulgated, the parties should now focus on economic and development issues as their main agenda for the upcoming federal and provincial elections. However, the candidates have been trying to influence voters by talking more about politics than development. The left alliance is saying that its victory means stability and development. Meanwhile, the Nepali Congress (NC) has been portraying the left alliance as a threat to democracy and is accusing it of trying to establish a ‘totalitarian regime’.
The demands of the people
There are no external security challenges during the polls, but chances of violent clashes between rival parties are high. Even as the parties flex their muscles, voters say they want infrastructure development, job creation and basic health and education. Due to lack of jobs, young and talented people from the hills have been migrating en masse to Dhangadhi, Nepalgunj or Kathmandu. Migration has resulted in a decrease in the number of electoral constituencies in the far-western hill districts. Youths from Baitadi, Bajura, Doti and Achham districts mainly go to India as seasonal workers, and some of them may not return for the elections. Only the illiterate and poor remain in the villages leading to a change in the voting pattern. Candidates who can influence voters in terms of power and money, or stir up a media buzz at the last moment, can easily win the election. There are few voters who will cast their ballots after properly evaluating the parties and candidates.
Compared to 10 years ago, the road network has expanded greatly. Almost all district headquarters are linked by roads, but several rural municipalities are still roadless. Due to the rough terrain, the disabled, sick and elderly may not be able to travel to the scattered polling booths to cast their votes.
The general public feels that if any candidates from the region become ministers or get appointed to other public positions, they should do something for its development. If the leaders fail to perform, it is almost certain that their political career will be in jeopardy. For example, Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) senior leader Lokendra Bahadur Chand, who hails from Baitadi district, has become prime minister four times. Despite holding the top position, he lost ground in his home constituency, and the RPP’s position there is very weak. He has been accused of remaining in Kathmandu and not paying attention to the needs of society. After the establishment of the republic, Chand faced a humiliating election defeat. The number of RPP cadres is slowing falling.
Likewise, CPN-UML leader Karna Bahadur Thapa, who hails from Bajura, has been facing public anger after failing to meet the people’s expectations. Voters and ordinary people are asking what he did for Bajura district when he became industry minister in 2014. District UML leaders admit that the party put Thapa in the proportional representation (PR) category due to his deteriorating political image.
A candidate of UML, Bhim Rawal has received some criticism in Achham district. He is taken as a leader who does not care much about the district. Still, he is regarded as a senior leader in the far western region after Sher Bahadur Deuba of the NC. It seems Deuba has built a good image in his home constituency Dadeldhura. He is known as a leader who does not make many promises but stays true to what he does promise. Voters say he clearly says what he can do and what he cannot do. People frequently ask what the region will get if Deuba and Rawal are both defeated.
It would be too early to predict the results of the upcoming elections. However, one thing is clear: If the UML-Maoist alliance remains intact, it will be a major challenge for the NC. The local level election results are another major psychological challenge for the NC even though voting patterns for local and parliamentary elections are entirely different. NC candidates are hopeful that they will gain from a crack in the left alliance at the local level. Poll results in many constituencies in the far west will depend on swing voters. It seems that Dalit, poor and marginalised communities will be swing voters.
A close study of minority groups in the far western hill districts clearly shows that they are undecided. During the first CA election, a majority of Dalits and marginalised communities voted for the Maoist party. The trend had changed during the second CA elections and the recently held local elections. For this reason, political parties have been putting the main focus on these swing voters. Candidates may try to buy voters by offering them money at the last moment. Doti, Bajura, Bajhang and Baitadi districts contain a large number of such swing voters.
Bhattarai is a political reporter at The Kathmandu Post