By-election: outcome, and its impact on Nepal’s domestic and external politics

Kathmandu, 25 Apr: It is generally believed that by-election results normally do go against incumbency. The initial trend in Tanahu -1, Chitwan-2 and Bara-2 confirmed it. While, the results indicate that it is more than just filling up of vacant constituencies, altogether three in the current context.

Though it does not quite change the political equation or upset the government, it sends across a much wider and powerful message to national politics which its actors can ignore only if they want to invite peril.

Swarnim Wagle’s comfortable victory in Tanahu-1 shows the by-election directly goes against Nepali Congress –Maoist combine establishment at large and particularly against Sher Bahadur Deuba, chief of the Nepali Congress and his family.

Wagle had accused Deuba and his family of being ‘corrupt’ and presented that as the key reason for him to quit the Nepali Congress and contest on a RSP Ticket for the by-election.  How many people took Wagle’s statement at face value is one thing, but the general voters in Tanahu-1, a seat vacated by Nepali congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel following his election as the President, endorsed him.

‘We know Wagle had been hobnobbing with the RSP for months, and he, in his capacity of the IIDS Board chair, had also been tutoring some RSP MPs on crucial issues in parliament, but certainly, NC leadership must take the responsibility of the defeat,’ a prominent Nepali congress MP says.

Swarnim’s public outburst against the Deubas, also slams the door for any possible hand-shake between the two parties in near future, but at the same time it enhances chances of a formidable equation led by K P Oli attracting RSP and other parties as an alternative to NC-Maoist coalition.

The Tanahu outcome is, however, not an electoral indictment of Deuba couple alone. It also can be interpreted as an indictment or rejection of youth leaders like Gagan Thapa and Bishwa Prakash in equal measure. Thapa and Sharma had taken the electoral command in Tanahu and Chitwan, and their appeal was rejected by the people through comfortable win of Wagle and Rabi Lamichhans having been elected securing more votes than he had polled earlier in November.

Thapa, in particular, had scores against Wagle to settle. A section of the NC had even accused him of striking certain deals with the RSP, as it did not field any candidate against him from Kathmandu-4 during the last general elections. Deubas were not happy about Thapa promoting Wagle even after he had begun airing his views against them in not so private manner during the past few months. Thapa, naturally feeling betrayed by Wagle when he crossed over to the RSP, agreed to take the electoral command understandably with two motives- first, to have Wagle defeated, and to erase any doubt about his being in political proximity with the RSP anymore.

While the electoral outcome makes the NC leadership more vulnerable, it also shows that K P Oli, Chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal –Unified Marxist Leninist-, is making every effort to cultivate and rope in the parties not associated, or not happy with the current government coalition. These parties naturally include RSP, RPP, Janamat party and Nagarik Unmukti Party, which together with 80 members of UML in parliament will be closer to the half way through mark in the parliament that has 273 effective strengths. Even the victory of Upendra Yadav in Bara-2 is not something to rejoice for the ruling coalition as it is more temporary in Nature.

Oli will clearly be at a striking distance. Prime Minister Dahal’s plea for Unification of left forces to form one single party is less of his commitment for it, and more for his continuation that build situational force for him to quit the
alliance with the NC.

Oli may not be the Prime Minister yet, but he has been controlling the parliamentary activities as well as the issue of appointing a new chief justice. He has already got at least three of the members in the constitutional council from his side—Speaker, Upper House Chairman and the leader of the opposition—and he might just go for any bid for the Prime Minister’s chair.

External factor:
Nepal’s internal politics is not purely internal. External forces, mainly India, have decisively influenced political agenda, and at times, the appointment of PM as well. Oli, despite his being in good term with India in the past, had sour relationship with the South, during his first tenure in 2015 when India launched economic blockade for nearly five months, and then in 2017 over territorial dispute and ‘new map’ that Nepal officially launched.  Of late, or specifically after the presidential election, India has been supporting the NC-Maoist equation on understanding that it helps to contain China, and for that it might even join hands with the U S.

India is also clear that it would not let anything that will bring two major communist parties—UML and Maoists –together as that will give China operational upper hand in Nepal.

That possibly explains why Vijay Chauthaiwale had a longish meeting with Oli. It indicates that India recognises Oli as the force to reckon with, and somebody who cannot be ruled out being in power soon.

While the contesting external forces—broadly E U, U S and India may join hands for their larger interest against China– both the blocks will have to own the way domestic politics will emerge post by-elections.