How local elections punctured CPN-UML’s bloated egoThe largest party from the 2017 elections appears set to get relegated to a distant second with gains for the Congress and more bargaining power for the Maoists.
The CPN-UML appeared confident. Its top leaders did not believe the ruling coalition of five parties would be able to pull off an electoral alliance. Their belief stemmed from the haggling among the ruling parties for weeks in the lead up to the May local elections. For coalition partners too, contesting elections under an alliance in all 753 units was easier said than done. The UML boasted about winning on its own. After days of struggle, the coalition managed to reach an understanding on seat-sharing, but only in one third of the local units. This was the first time the UML was perturbed. It also decided to reach an understanding with fringe parties like Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal and Nepal Pariwar Dal.
Then elections happened.
After two days of counting, the Nepali Congress looked set to make gains and the Maoist Centre appeared to be on course to win a respectable number of seats. The development punctured UML’s ego and its earlier mood of optimism.
On Sunday, the party’s general secretary, Shankar Pokhrel, issued a statement, accusing the ruling coalition of rigging the elections.
The UML has said that rigging was done in three phases—before, during, and after the elections [during vote counting]—by using the state machinery. “The home administration deployed police and civil servants who were supportive of the ruling alliance. Our candidates were harassed and even detained who were released only after voting,” reads the statement.
The party also said that booths were captured in dozens of places.
“Even after forging an electoral alliance, the ballot rigging by the [ruling] parties has continued in a planned way. Therefore we demand that the government stop such activities at the earliest,” Pokhrel said in the statement.
Observers say there’s a tendency among the parties to make claims of ballot rigging when they lose or sense a defeat. For the UML, preliminary results came as a major setback as it was boasting about not only winning the election but also increasing the number of wins compared to last elections, according to them.
In the 2017 elections, the UML had emerged as the largest party after winning 294 units, while the Congress stood second with 266 units, and the Maoist Centre third with 106 units. If the current trend of wins and leads the parties have maintained is anything to go by, the UML is set to slide to the second position, with a small margin of wins more than the Maoist Centre’s.
By the time this paper went to press, the Congress had won 226 units with 90 leads, the UML had won 145 units and 54 leads. In the last elections, the UML had claimed two out of six metropolitan cities—Kathmandu and Pokhara. This time, it does not look like it’s winning any of the metropolitan cities; rather, it is set to lose even those two, which is going to dent its bruised pride.
“Parties often complain when the situation does not favour them and they stay mum when they are on a winning track,” said Bhojraj Pokhrel, a former chief election commissioner. “As far as the question you are asking, I am not completely aware of the issue. If there are some serious lapses, the Election Commission should look into them.”
Nepal’s Election Commission is a constitutionally mandated poll management body, as provisioned by Articles 245 and 246 of the charter.
As per Article 246 (Duties, Functions and Powers of the Election Commission), the commission has the responsibility to conduct, supervise, direct and control the election of the President, Vice President, members of the federal parliament, members of provincial assemblies and members of the local level.
Election Commission officials pooh-poohed the UML charges of vote rigging.
“I’m extremely busy. I don’t have comments on such complaints which keep on coming,” Chief Election Commissioner Dinesh Thapaliya told the Post over the phone.
The government led by UML chair KP Sharma Oli fell in July last year, a little over three years after it was formed, after the current coalition of the Nepali Congress, the Maoist Centre, the CPN (Unified Socialist), the Janata Samajbadi Party, and the Rastriya Janamorcha challenged the Oli government's decision to dissolve the House. The Supreme Court restored the House and ordered the appointment of Deuba as prime minister.
The coalition, however, was on a shaky ground because the partners were poles apart given their different ideologies. It once even faced the risk of implosion over the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact, a $500 million US grant. But Deuba managed to save the coalition, with a sole view to fighting the elections under an alliance and continuing the alliance until two federal and provincial elections which are due later this year.
A likelihood now is the UML will try to woo left forces like the Maoist Centre and the Unified Socialist, which is unhappy with the results and has blamed the alliance for its poor performance. The Maoist Centre’s bargaining power has dramatically increased.
The sole objective of the alliance was to check the UML and it has largely succeeded.
Political experts say the UML’s ‘arrogance’ had crossed the limit and that made it pay the price.
“The arrogance had turned the UML and its chairperson blind. People have punctured its ego through the local polls,” Shyam Shrestha, a political analyst who follows left politics closely, told the Post. “Everything in excess is bad. This was bound to happen.”
He said after the three-tier elections of 2017, the UML and its chair KP Sharma Oli were under an illusion that they were invincible.
It was for the first time since 1990 the UML had emerged as the largest party. However, in less than five years the party has been cut to size.
Some UML leaders admit that Oli’s arrogance is one of the reasons for the party’s poor show in the local polls.
“Among other factors, the arrogant speeches from the party chairperson [Oli] too are responsible for this situation,” a Standing Committee member of the party told the Post on the condition of anonymity as he feared retribution for criticising his boss.
In every election-targeted mass meeting, Oli said his party would easily take on the five-party alliance. He once even said that his party was an iron cast weighing a quintal while other parties were pieces that weigh 1 kg each—totalling just 5 kilograms, insinuating that UML’s strength was incomparable to any other parties.
However, if the present trend in the results prevails, the party will lose close to 100 local units it had won five years back, getting relegated to a distant second.
Analysts say preliminary election results have shown the people keep close eyes on the parties and they reward and punish them accordingly. The electorate answered to UML’s supercilious attitude through the ballot, they say.
“The political leadership must understand that the people and society are dynamic. People’s sentiment has changed from 2017 which the UML leadership failed to understand,” said Meena Vaidya Malla, a professor and former head of the Central Department of Political Science at the Tribhuvan University. “It was wrong [0n the part of Oli and his party] to demean others.”