Stunned by the RSP, can Nepal’s old parties reinvent themselves?The trouncing of the candidates of established parties in the by-elections is being seen as a ‘do or die’ moment for the forces that have promised much but delivered little.
Tika R Pradhan
After candidates of the new Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) won two of the three parliamentary seats for which by-elections were held on Sunday, leaders of big parties and political observers have started speculating what lies ahead for the major parties.
As of late evening on Tuesday, Janata Samajbadi Party chief Upendra Yadav, however, is ahead of his closest rival, Janamat Party’s Shiva Chandra Kushwaha, by less than 3,000 votes. But Kushwaha seemed to be chipping into the margin.
Top leaders of traditional parties have already started expressing their concerns over the ‘unexpected’ results.
On Monday, Sher Bahadur Deuba, chief of the Nepali Congress, the largest parliamentary party, conceded that people have stopped trusting big parties.
And on Tuesday, Madhav Nepal, chair of a ruling party CPN (Unified Socialist), said time has come for the major parties to seriously reassess their mistakes
“People will trust us only if we correct our shortcomings. Testing times of all [the parties] have already started,” Nepal told reporters after the House meeting on Tuesday. “We must pass this litmus test.”
After being beaten by Rastriya Swatantra Party chair Rabi Lamichhane in Chitwan, with a margin of over 42,900 votes on Tuesday, Nepali Congress candidate Jit Narayan Shrestha said there are only two options for the major parties—either they correct themselves or be wiped out.
“People seem to be seeking a change in the system and how we run the party and our campaigns,” Shrestha told the reporters at Chitwan after congratulating his rival Lamichhane on the latter’s victory. “I don’t think we have been able to connect with the people even though we have better organisation [compared to newer parties].”
By-elections were held on Sunday in three constituencies—Tanahun-1, Bara-2 and Chitwan-2. This happened after two lawmakers Ramchandra Paudel and Ramsahay Prasad Yadav were elected the country’s President and Vice President respectively and Rabi Lamichhane, chair of the RSP, lost his lawmaker status owing to legal flaws in his citizenship certificate. If lawmakers are elected to the post of President or Vice President they must resign as lawmakers.
Nepali Congress leader Shekhar Koirala said the results of the by-election indicate that the Congress needs a major overhaul.
“The results of the three constituencies show that youths have voted for new parties instead of the old ones that have failed to accommodate public concerns,” Koirala told reporters at Biratnagar Airport on Tuesday. “This result demands that Congress should correct itself. We need to strengthen our organisation down to the ward-level with focus on the younger generation.”
He also said the Congress failed to understand youth psychology. “Accepting these results, the Congress should move ahead in a new way now,” Koirala said. “We all must take responsibility for the defeat.”
During the local polls, independent candidates like Balendra Shah in Kathmandu Metropolitan City, Gopal Hamal in Dhangadhi Sub-metropolitan City and Harka Sangpang in Dharan Municipality, won mayoral posts by beating party candidates.
New parties made significant strides in the November 20 general elections. Formed just a few months ahead of the general elections, the RSP won 20 seats to become the fourth largest party in parliament after the CPN (Maoist Centre), while another new outfit, the Nagarik Unmukti Party, won four seats.
Another new outfit, CK Raut’s Janamat Party, won seven seats–with Raut defeating the chairman of the Janata Samajbadi Party Upendra Yadav.
Yadav contested Sunday’s by-election as the sole candidate of major parties in the ruling coalition including–Congress, Maoist Centre and CPN (Unified Socialist).
UML deputy parliamentary leader Subas Chandra Nembang, who chaired the two Constituent Assemblies, believes time has come for the major parties to heed the message of the people and give convincing assurances that the parties are ready to correct themselves and bring jointly tell the people how they will correct themselves and bring tangible improvements in governance.
Knowing that people are unhappy with major parties, the UML had launched ‘Mission Grassroots’ campaign to get the public's pulse at the local level. But according to its leaders, the questions against the party’s leadership have not been answered.
“By voting for the newer parties people have expressed their utter dissatisfaction with the older parties for their failure to deliver and bring about desired change,” said Nembang. “I have thus suggested that the top three leaders [of the three largest parties] seriously assess the message of the polls and give a joint message to the people on how they can correct themselves before it is too late.”
According to Nembang, most importantly, the top leaders must now convince the people that they can jointly work to realise people’s expectations by taking all other parties into confidence.
Leaders have also said the scandals involving leaders of the new parties benefited, rather than harm, them. That would not have been the case had similar things happened to the leaders of more established parties.
“The overwhelming support for new parties was nothing but an expression of frustration against the parties that repeatedly failed to deliver,” Nembang said.
But leaders of the major parties said they have enough time to change.
Ruling CPN (Maoist Centre) deputy general secretary Girirajmani Pokhrel said the message of the by-election is that the major parties must change their mindset and adapt to changes in the world and society, in terms of their thinking, planning and working methods.
“We brought about political change through the people’s movement. But we failed to ensure development, and people never felt a change in their lives, which only became increasingly more miserable,” Pokhrel said. “We have time to change and take voters into confidence by altering our work-style so that we can attract voters again.”
However, political analysts say big parties are unlikely to see any meaningful improvement.
According to Jhalak Subedi, a political analyst who follows left politics, the major political parties are now under pressure.
“They must stop compromising on their ideals to get to power, ensure delivery in a way people can feel it, and guarantee space for capable people like Swarnim Wagle,” said Subedi. “Most importantly, they must articulate their plans on the changes they want to bring about in a simple language that everyone understands.”
Subedi, however, said he was not hopeful.
“I don’t think the old leaders and their old mindsets will change though,” Subedi said.