Age, term limits in political parties contingent on top leaders’ whimsIf bureaucrats, professors and justices retire, why not politicians, asks ex-election chief.
Only recently, the CPN-UML removed the age limit of 70 years for leaders to hold an executive post, making its 71-year-old chair KP Sharma Oli eligible to helm the party for another tenure. That, however, is contingent on the party removing its two-term rule as well.
The UML had introduced a two-term limit for the holder of an executive post in the party’s eighth general convention in Butwal in February 2009. Then, the party’s ninth general convention organised in Kathmandu in July 2014 adopted a 70-year limit for leaders to hold any executive position in the party.
The proposal of removing the age limit will now be floated in the party’s ‘statute general convention’ for endorsement.
UML leaders claimed that the age limit was removed to create space for Mukunda Neupane who joined the party from the CPN (Unified Socialist). The party, however, has given continuity to the provision that a leader can hold an executive position for a maximum of two terms.
“The UML had tried to enforce age and term limits, but that too has been interpreted in key leaders’ favour,” said Rajendra Maharjan, a political analyst.
Other parties are no better.
At the eighth general convention of the Maoist Centre in December 2021, some representatives had suggested a 70-year age limit, compulsorily retiring an office bearer upon reaching the threshold. They also proposed that a leader could be prime minister for a maximum of two times, minister and lawmaker for up to four times and in the head position of a party committee for a maximum of two tenures. No suggestions were heeded.
Party chair Dahal, 68, is the prime minister in his third stint and has been leading the party uninterrupted for over 35 years.
Leadership transfer of political parties to young leaders has long been in the talks. But what’s actually happening is regressive—such as the age and term limits’ removal.
Political commentator Chandra Dev Bhatta said the parties have only been acting in a way that benefits a few top leaders who are reluctant to hand over the reins.
“The craving for power in our political leaders is frightening and limitless. Even if able second generation leaders emerge, the key leaders are not ready to give them responsibility, because the former enjoy their power and position while exploiting the resources,” said Maharjan, the political analyst.
The Nepali Congress sets a two-term limit for party president, but there is no age limit. Sher Bahadur Deuba, 76, is the party president for the second term while he has already become prime minister five times.
Congress publicity department head Min Bishwakarma said the party believes that the more seasoned a leader becomes, the more s/he can deliver. “Leaders’ job is not physical; they are mental and ideological [skills],” he said.
Bishwakarma claimed that more than 40 percent of the convention representatives were under 46, and youth and second generation leaders have been getting enough opportunities in various party committees and they hold office bearer positions. “We are already incorporating youths. So, as yet, we don’t feel any need for such limits.”
Former chief election commissioner Neil Kantha Upreti disagrees with Bishwakarma. If bureaucrats, professors and justices retire at a certain age, why not politicians?, he argues. “The politicians should do more travelling, meeting people at their doorsteps and giving speeches. But our political leaders crave power and positions even when they become old, weak and ill.”
According to Upreti, the old leaders cannot reach people’s homes, talk with them, and listen to their grievances, which is a must for any politician to keep abreast of the social reality. “Also, if a top leader does not allow the youth and second generation leaders to gain experience, what sort of leadership will it produce for the future?”
Despite growing voices within the parties for bringing the young generation forward, most candidates were the same old faces in the major polls. Observers say the November vote results have clearly shown that the public seeks youths to lead the country, as they are frustrated at the same old faces who failed to deliver.
As many as 12 political parties and five independent candidates were elected to the House of Representatives last year. Three parties—the Rastriya Swatantra Party, Janamat Party and Nagarik Unmukti Party—made it to Parliament in their first attempts. The major polls sent many young faces to Parliament, a sign experts call good for democracy.
The Rastriya Swatantra Party, the fourth largest force in Parliament, has its primary focus on enhancing youth participation, claim party leaders. Its statute mandates 50 percent +1 participation of youths in the central committee, central accounts committee, municipal committees and ward committees. It also has fixed terms and an age limit, said Ganesh Karki, the party’s press coordinator.
According to him, only the age limit does not work, there should be a term limit as well. For example, if a leader becomes office bearer at 40 and can remain so for 30 years, that will not be the change.
Age and term limits would have been unnecessary had our leaders been self-conscious and open enough to hand over the leadership after their failures, say observers.
“If they don’t use their wit to promote youth participation and install new-generation leaders in party positions, they must be bound tightly by rules and a system,” added Maharjan.
In principle, democracy requires no age or term limits, but in Nepal’s case top leaders refuse to bow out even in the face of their repeated failures, said Bhatta.
It is not true that no youth or second generation leaders have got the chance to hold executive positions in the party. The Congress has Gagan Thapa, Bishwa Prakash Sharma, Jeevan Pariyar and so on. And other parties have such leaders too.
However, youth and second-generation leaders in office bearer positions have been failing to act as expected, said Bhatta. “They have been failing to challenge the monopoly of a handful of leaders in the party.”
“Yes, the youth leaders in traditional parties do not challenge the old leadership in elections—they only talk about generation shift to grab attention,” said Karki.
The craving for power has been so evident among Nepal’s top politicians that it has led to party splits at times. In August 2021, the then largest party, the CPN-UML, split, after one of its factions led by Madhav Kumar Nepal registered a new party, the CPN (Unified Socialist).
“The lust for power is so intense that it would be no surprise if the parties that have term limits now remove them for the sake of their top leaders,” said Bhatta.