New directionIn these elections, for the first time in the country’s history, development agenda tops
As Nepal prepares to vote in the parliamentary and provincial elections next week, discussions the country over have, as in previous elections, focused on political alliances, comparison of strength of parties or alliances, and candidates and their probability of winning. What is significantly missing from the analytical discourse are some crucial components related to political agendas, parties, voters, and campaigning strategies, which makes these election unique from all others Nepal has had previously. The absence of these components could potentially bear long-term consequences in the way politics is viewed and practiced in Nepal.
The biggest shift during these elections is that for the first time in the country’s history, the development agenda is the main focus. Since the introduction of democracy in 1951, a political agenda was always at the helm of Nepali politics and elections. It began with the challenge to ensure a safe transition from the autocratic Rana regime and all that embodied the pre-modern era to the modern, democratic nation after 1950, followed by the political tussle between the autocratic king and the champions of democracy from 1960 to 1990, the tumultuous armed conflict from 1996 to 2006, and the abolition of monarchy, the institution of a federal republic, and the drafting of the inclusive constitution after 2006. Nepal has consistently had a pressing political agenda to tend to. So it was natural for the development agenda to be pushed to the side-lines.
With the political issues largely considered to be settled and the implementation of the new constitution taking the desired course with the completion of the local polls, the parties are contesting this election with the development agenda at the fore. From the left alliance’s promise of electric trains and a $5000 per capita income within the next decade, and the Nepali Congress (NC)-led alliance’s pledge of a prosperous Nepal in ten years and 500km railway lines, to Bibeksheel-Sajha’s promise of corruption-free polity and good governance, parties’ visions are deftly detailed in their election manifestoes.
How the shiny manifestoes evolve in terms of their implementation cannot be predicted now. Yet, this does not discount the value of Nepal taking a stride towards development politically. In the past, politicians pointed towards unfinished political tasks at hand as the cause of the sluggish economy, huge unemployment and poor education sector. Now, the media and the public can more rigorously pursue and seek answes for the parties’ inability to deliver on their development promises.
The second significant transformation this election marks is the emergence of political parties that are contesting the mainstream parties as ‘alternative’ forces. Parties like Bibeksheel-Sajha Party and Hamro Party have made their presence well known in the Capital and other urban areas. And their self-portrayal as the alternative force is bolstered by the fact that these parties are contesting against the bigwigs of major parties in the core Kathmandu constituencies.
The rise of the ‘alternative’ parties is important for two reasons. One, individuals associated with these parties represent educated and professionally successful groups of people who were not linked with politics or political parties in any way prior to this point. This is a significant shift in Nepal, where politics has gained much notoriety as not being fit to pursue for educated people with good intentions. Two, this is the first time any party has presented itself as an alternative force, gaining media coverage and popular interest.
Youth in politics
Closely related with the birth of these new parties is the increased interest of a younger cohort of Nepali population in politics and electoral process. For long, the educated, urban youths were disenchanted with politics and chose to stay aloof. Voters between the ages of 18-40 and born between mid-1970s to the late 1990s grew up amidst the political chaos of the post-1990 multiparty democracy, the decade-long conflict, and corruption-ridden politics. Therefore, this group harboured a deep distrust towards politics.
Although concrete statistics are absent, some observations hint at the enhanced engagement of urban youths in political issues. One, campaigns of the then Bibeksheel Party to support Dr Govinda KC’s demands, and to protest the impeachment motion against the then Chief Justice Sushila Karki almost entirely rested upon the planning, coordination, organisation, and participation of youths. Two, although these campaigns were centred in the Capital, youths from other parts of the country and those outside Nepal participated through social media. Three, youth volunteers form the core of parties like Bibeksheel-Sajha and Hamro Party, and their election campaigns are almost entirely youth-driven. Four, Nepali youths residing abroad for educational or work purposes have also been increasingly voicing their concerns and political stance through social media.
Youths are considered the determining group in elections due to their unpredictable voting behaviour. The Election Commission said that this election, youths between 18-40 years of age comprise 52 percent of the total eligible voters. Therefore, that a vibrant voter section that was previously alienated from the political process is now not only discussing politics and development, but is actively engaged in politics will certainly shape Nepal’s politics and its future outcomes.
Embracing social media
The fourth important shift this election shows is the extensive use of social media through Facebook, Twitter and other internet platforms for election campaigning. Elections in countries like the US, UK, and neighbouring India showed that successful use of social media can provide a winning edge in elections. There are indications that Nepal’s parties have also understood this. Reflecting the technological transformation Nepal has achieved in the past decade—latest data shows 62 percent Nepalis use internet, and 7 million Nepalis are on Facebook—election campaigns have also shifted to social media. Campaigns are now increasingly relying upon virtual spaces on the internet, which both the major and newer parties are using to spread their manifestoes, deliver their messages and spread highlights of campaigns on the ground.
Several known leaders also have individual Facebook and Twitter pages that boast huge fan followings; they are utilising these platforms to connect to voters. That the parties have designated teams for managing social media contents for campaigns underscores the fact that the parties have understood the value of strategic exploitation of social media for election campaigns.
Social media has also become a tool for voters to share information and opinions, and gauge candidates. Particularly for millions of Nepalis abroad, it has provided easy access to elections in the country.
Nepalis have always embraced elections with a festive mood. In this sense, these elections perhaps offer more cause for celebration since they hint at important shifts, all of which can have a significant impact on Nepal’s political culture, and consequently on the power of politics to deliver. These will certainly impact the way politics are viewed by citizens and affect the course of Nepali politics. Discussions focusing on these shifts will further help strengthen these positive transformations.
Gautam writes on contemporary social and cultural issues