Horsing aroundInsincerity and false promises has become a staple of Nepali politics now, rendering vote swings highly probable
With the first round of the elections over, and as we head into the next phase, there appears little clarity on which way the vote is likely to swing. Various news outlets have used the results from the local elections to indicate possible scenarios, all of which point to a clean sweep for the Left Alliance. Unfortunately, in politics, simple arithmetic calculations do not always work. Neither do poll forecasts, with the pro-Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the ascendance of Donald Trump in the United States showing just how unpredictable voters can be.
The last time anyone seriously hazarded a guess about the election results in Nepal was during the 2008 Constituent Assembly (CA) polls, when the Maoists were expected to come in third behind the Nepali Congress (NC) and the UML. There had been a fair amount of back and forth between the Maoists on one side and the NC-UML combine on the other on the electoral system, with the Maoists insisting on more proportional representation (PR) seats and the NC-UML preferring a higher share for the directly elected ones, with both sides rooting for the part that they assumed would favour them. When the results came in with a strong wave for the Maoists, the NC and the UML must have thanked their lucky stars that they agreed in some measure to the PR, while the Maoists must have rued their opposition to more directly elected seats.
The 2013 CA elections were somewhat of a surprise for the manner in which the pendulum swung away from the Maoists and the Madhesi parties. And, although with the benefit of hindsight, we can claim it was only to be expected, this time around it is quite different even if the cast of characters are the same.
Left and Right
Ranged against the Left Alliance is a conglomeration of parties with nothing in common except an antipathy towards what passes for communism in Nepal. But, unless one were to believe the NC side that it is only they that stand between democracy and the authoritarianism of the UML-Maoist combine, there is not much to choose between the two sides. Of course, there is little difference in the promises made in their election manifestoes, but who reads them anyway; the parties certainly do not go back to those documents. Just the idea that both sides promise corruption-free governance is enough to turn one off in any case.
In sum, however, the Left Alliance has somewhat of a track record that resonates strongly with the people. The major one is the issue of social security allowances, and, knowingly, it has proposed raising it 1.5 fold. The grant to local bodies is another, along with free healthcare (announced by the Maoists). Of course, the UML is also known for normalising corruption, if indulged in for the sake of the party or at least in its name, a practice the Maoists were quick to pick up.
As for the NC, it is almost synonymous with corruption, the latest instance was when not a few party stalwarts wanted the election law changed to allow those convicted of graft to contest the polls, not to mention initiating impeachment proceedings against the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who was an exemplar in probity. That is, if we consider what happened in the 1990s and early 2000s to be part of history.
Neither can the NC boast of any meaningful achievements since 1990 despite having been in power the longest. Its election manifesto contains an annex intriguingly titled ‘Results of Development [Initiatives] under the Leadership of the Nepali Congress over the Past 25 Years’. The drafters of the manifesto may have their reasons to allude to Nepal having been under NC rule for the last quarter century, but the attempt seems to have been to attribute any progress to the NC.
The annex lists 22 such ‘achievements’, with the first being the reduction of the national poverty rate from 49 per cent in 1992 to 21 per cent in 2017. That is certainly an impressive one to tout but also patently disingenuous. It is almost as if all of that happened through careful planning by the party. If the NC had any role to play in reducing poverty, it is in the most roundabout and rather unfavourable sense.
The 2016 World Bank study, Moving up the Ladder: Poverty Reduction and Social Mobility in Nepal, analysed the 1995/96, 2003/04 and 2010/11 Nepal Living Standards Survey (NLSS) data to conclude that ‘the direct effect of remittances accounts for about 27 per cent of the overall poverty reduction nationally and 33 per cent of the reduction in rural areas’. We are fully aware of the role remittances played in bringing down poverty over the years. The big surprise came when the 2003/04 NLSS showed poverty having gone down to 31 per cent from the 42 per cent in 1996/96, the very same years that the Maoist insurgency was at its most intense and economic activities had ground slowly to a halt. There has been further decrease in poverty levels since, and the last recorded figure of 25 per cent in 2010/11 must have provided the basis for the extrapolation to the current 21 per cent in the NC manifesto. Only if we agree that since it was the NC that was largely responsible for the mismanagement of the country and the economy after 1992 as well as the Maoist insurgency in the years afterwards, fuelling large-scale outmigration of Nepalis to countries abroad, and leading to the rise of an economy dependent heavily on remittances, can we accept the NC’s claim that its policies contributed to the reduction of poverty in Nepal.
The World Bank study also found that a further 52 percent of the reduction was attributable to ‘income derived from wage and non-wage employment within Nepal…Even households without migrants have benefited from the growth in labor income. On the one hand, wages in agriculture have gone up as a result of the tightening of labor supply. On the other hand, increase in the demand for non-agricultural goods and services has led to an increase in demand for non-farm labor and pushed up non-farm wages. In the urban and newly urbanizing areas, remittances have been the critical source of liquidity fueling growth in banking and financial services, restaurants and trade as well as real estate and construction.’
That pretty much puts paid to the NC’s other claims such as the number of telephones having gone up under its purported watch, people living longer, increase in number of banking and financial institutions, reduced child and maternal mortality rates, bringing down the share of foreign aid in the national budget or even the better gender parity in higher education. Almost all of that seems have been caused by the flight of young men and women away from the country albeit partly thanks to the NC.
The one plank both sides have been using to canvass for votes is of making Nepali politics more stable by winning a majority of the seats. Actually, if the metaphor of the stable is to be correctly used, it can only be in the context of horse-trading. For, the issue has never been about a mandate given to one party or the next. The NC received parliamentary majorities twice in the 1990s, and each time, infighting led to its squandering of the people’s trust. The UML is no better. It is too early to forget that factions within the UML made it untenable for Madhav Kumar Nepal to continue as prime minister. And, who replaced him, but his comrade from the same party, Jhala Nath Khanal? Khanal was most recently in the news for siring someone who was responsible for delaying the construction of the airport in Bhairahawa, and against whom no action could apparently not be taken because of whose son he is. Certainly, shades of the NC there, rendering a choice next week even more difficult.