Periodic elections are a means to supply elites of each generation and social strata in the political power. They make the body politic representative of social diversity, enable people to make competitive choices of their leaders, parties and policies and legitimize the social utility of governance. The quality of democratic resilience largely rests on the representation of public opinion, selection of worthy leadership and scale of people’s participation.
The elections of the 275-member House of Representatives on November 20, 2022 basically remained peaceful. Two blocs of power with heterodox political parties, de-ideologized campaign and catch-all inclination were at the heart of electoral competition. The ruling power bloc led by Nepali Congress (NC) comprised CPN-(Maoist-Center), CPN-Unified-Socialist, Rastriya Janamorcha and Loktantric Samajbadi Party (LSP). The other power bloc led by CPN-UML comprised Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP), Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, Pariwar Dal and People’s Progressive Party (PRP). The latter three parties contested the election with CPN-UML quota and symbol.
In no way, electoral competition of Nepali parties represented the class struggle for contending policies. The election outcome favored NC as the largest party in the parliament with a total of 89 seats. It scored the highest number of seats in the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) election while the CPN-UML vaulted ahead in the proportional election. The CPN-UML won 78 seats in total. Both the power blocs, however, fall short of a simple majority of 138 seats so essential to form a coalition government without garnering outside support.
The ruling coalition has stitched the support of the leader of Janamat Party C.K. Raut with 5 seats and is struggling to entice Upendra Yadav, the leader of JSP who has won 12 seats. Yadav has already stated his party’s disassociation from CPN-UML probably to swing to ruling coalition. As leaders of NC, Maoist-Center, CPN-UML, CPN- Unified Socialist, JSP and LSP constitute the political establishment, they have shared power with all political combinations. As a result, a section of leaders prefers the grand coalition government of NC and CPN-UML in the hope of political stability and constitutional status quo.
The electoral adjustment of power blocs with incompatible political parties glued by sheer leadership interest for power than ideological affinity and solidarity unbounded Nepali voters’ partisan connection.
Obviously, political stability demands the restoration of Nepali state’s legitimate monopoly on power, political institutionalization, autonomy of constitutional bodies and performance legitimacy of democracy so that voters keep robust partisan alignment, not often search for new forces and defeat the dominant party in each national election. The Maoist-Center and CPN-Unified Socialist have lost nearly half of their seats. They have to be satisfied with 32 and 10 seats respectively, the latter even failing to become a national party. Each of them blamed NC voters and leaders for not voting as per their electoral adjustment but exercising their own free choice.
The waning size of these parties has created trust deficit in the ruling coalition though NC president Sher Bahadur Deuba has consoled them to take effective action against defiant leaders. The progressive deterioration of all left parties including CPN-UML is marked by their weak adaptation, mismatch between promise and delivery, split and unaccountable maneuver of their leaders thus keeping parties under the shadows of personal ambition. The organizational set up of left parties on “democratic centralism” now faces the urban and educated peoples’ demands for democratization, decentralization, deliberation and participation.
In the post-election assessment Maoist-Center floated the idea to keep their option open as to which side to join in forming the new government—forge left alliance with CPN-UML as offered by its president K. P. Oli or stay with NC. The first choice is marred by the betrayal of trust in the past while the second choice by fear of squeezing out of the future electoral base. The President of Maoist-Center Prachanda’s maneuver to gain disproportional benefits relative to its political clout, however, ended in a consensus of ruling coalition to form the government of ruling parties with rotational Prime Minister while distributing other important posts among them.
Crack in the Establishment
Seven political parties- NC, CPN-UML, CPN Maoist-Center, Rashtriya Swatantra Party (RSP), Janata Samajbadi Party-Nepal (JSP-N), Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) and Janamat Party- have won national status in a consecutive order. They have surpassed the 3 percent vote threshold defined by Nepali party law. Having scored 21 seats in the parliament the RSP has emerged fourth in rank. The beauty of power bloc politics is that it has ended the politics of negation and allowed the emergence of RPP as a national party with 14 seats to articulate its demands. The establishment, which evolved market economy and patronage politics independent of the state, is mired in crack after 17 years of its rule without any veneer of legitimate opposition to check the arbitrary power of the executive.
The space for opposition is a prerequisite for the practice of liberal democracy. This time Nepali voters have favored the emergence of new parties and independents. They will likely raise diverse issues and voices and relax the mainstream parties’ political culture of tribal conformity, whip and thought-control of legislators. These malaises had turned parliament a hostage of a few top party leaders and styled parties in a patriarchal, personalized and leadership-control model. The interest of RSP to stay in opposition and RPP’s determination to raise its demands of constitutional monarchy and Hindu state against the establishment will set new political dynamics.
The birth of new national parties from electoral politics also scripts its deviation from the tradition of party emergence either from democratic struggle or breakup of parliamentary parties. RSP, Janamat Party and Nagrik Unmukti Party with 3 seats illustrate this fact. NC in the past had witnessed factional fights but now generational tussle. Six Congress leaders- Sher B. Deuba, Gagan Thapa, Shekhar Koirala, Ram Chandra Paudel, Prakash Man Singh and Shasank Koirala have aspired to contest for parliamentary leadership and Prime Minister. Except youth leader Gagan Thapa, who prefers a leadership change, all others belong to the senior generation. This tussle is not seen in the CPN-UML. The party president had steamrolled the dissenting voices before the elections and projected self as the sole aspirant for Prime Minister
The birth of RSP and its tacit support to Gagan Thapa marks a response to generational shift of Nepali politics. The critical masses of educated youths challenged the transactional politics of vote-buying and vote-selling, patrimonial style of top-down leadership and weak governance for long. This time the nation’s heartland, Kathmandu and some urban centers marked the victory of youth candidates and erosion of the social base of mainstream parties. The flow of critical information and social media honed the Nepali voters’ judgmental ability. Conscience voting has rendered partisan attachment loose and floated voters’ choice around candidates and parties they liked.
The electoral adjustment of power blocs with incompatible political parties glued by sheer leadership interest for power than ideological affinity and solidarity unbounded Nepali voters’ partisan connection. The educated Nepali youths have challenged the belief on the sacrifice of senior leaders for democratic struggle as a justification for leader-for-life. They found them lacking vision, skills and policies to foster stable good governance, plan the nation’s stable progress, uphold personal integrity and adapt to constitutional behavior.
Nepal’s senior leadership failed to provide civic education to their cadres and cultivate informed public opinion so that their supporters understand democratic principles and practice, keep a stake in them and sustain partisan attachment. Their weak performance is marred by the absence of nomination of bright, intelligent and honest people in the political parties and institutions of governance. The patronage selection of loyalists in every sphere of public life is the cause of their failure to upgrade the skill of local representatives and assembly members in matters of public policies and laws. Obviously, yes-man assembly members have remained subservient to fractious party leaders, special interest groups and businesspersons in the hope of amassing unlimited wealth.
The influence of money in politics is evident from the election of two dozen contractors in the national and provincial assemblies, some businessmen and even a few with outright criminal records. The senior leaders are also discredited for running governance in a top-down, bureaucratic style thus inching politics to intellectual, ideological and accountability void. Nepal’s centralized party system led by these leaders has kept control over the means of official recruitment, organization and communication, supported each other in power-sharing and preferred to pursue hereditary, family-friendly and personalized politics largely divorced from public and national interests. The proportional election system is precisely criticized for this reason.
Conscious Nepalis have served as a countervailing power to challenge the old political culture rooted in privileges, artificial class-based politics of left, right and center and nurtured the civic competence of voters to judge political parties and individual leaders on the basis of their merit and performance. Youth leadership within NC openly articulated transformational change in the party’s political culture through structural reforms in its leadership, policy, organizational, socialization and performance culture. New parties challenged it from outside. RSP’s vociferous appeal attracted the critical masses of civil society that had often acted as agents of political transformation.
The strong public support to new party in urban areas holds the potential to diffuse its arteries and tentacles in the entire nation if its elected members play a critical oppositional role in the parliament against the perpetuation of syndicated regime drenched with privileges, corruption and impunity and retarding the nation’s overall progress. The public spirit of new parties, however, lacks institutional and strategic muscle to integrate Nepali society and possess parliamentary and policy making expertise and experience. They, therefore, require regular political direction, issues awareness and socially and culturally embedded style of articulation.
Nepali media have also acted as a countervailing power and offered sufficient space with both critical articles in their favor and dense letters to the editors including the campaign for “no, not again the old faces.” Many independent candidates, mostly young and well educated, utilized social media effectively demanding intergenerational justice in politics. The leaders of big parties compensated for this loss through self-advertisement in the print media with paper-sized photos, interviews in television and sponsored articles. It also led to the fragmentation of Nepali political parties and voters. The number of parties in the parliament increased from 8 to about a dozen representing the nation’s diversity and asymmetry of power.
Apathy of Voters
The electoral outcome has established NC and CPN-UML as power blocs of national politics, the latter is, however, reduced from its dominant to second position. The anti-incumbent tendency of Nepali voters in the FPTP election shows a stable electoral trend. The CPN- UML’s loss of seats is caused by its split, contradictions in the party and the alliance of ruling parties. Still these two big parties have largely retained median voters, voters in the center, thus thwarting the unusual surge of radical parties, if not the reformist ones. On public policies they did not differ much but on foreign policy NC has raised the border disputes with China while CPN-UML promised to restore Nepali territory incorporated in the revised map of the nation. The RPP shares foreign policy with CPN-UML except in the case of MCC while RSP shares anti-federalist mood with the RPP, detest foreign intervention in the nation and control labor migration abroad by generating employment opportunities at home.
The interest of RSP to stay in opposition and RPP’s determination to raise its demands of constitutional monarchy and Hindu state against the establishment will set new political dynamics.
The declining voting turnout to 61 percent compared to local level election turnout of 71 percent indicates the growing sense of Nepalis’ alienation from national politics. The establishment’s accounts of diminishing voting turnout are: crop reaping time of year, short of zeal of coalition partners, lack of updated voters list, migration of voters’ abroad for jobs and mutual accusation of political leaders for their past faults thus ruining each other’s political image.
Critics have, however, furnished a long list of reason: non-performance of senior party leaders, split in parties, contradiction over the alliance with ideologically mismatched parties, leaders’ excessive lust for power, status quo orientation and failing to bring change in the life of ordinary people as promised in each election. Defection of some leaders from the parties has added cynicism to this list. Owing to seat adjustments many conscience-keeping voters found it disgusting to vote for candidates of other parties.
Invalid voting has registered 5 percent which is a sign of civic deficits. The waning electoral outcome has become a lesson for JSP and LSP not to play with the emotion of people—raise demands but remain indifferent while in power. The LSP has been reduced to 4 seats only. New parties, Nagrik Unmukti Party and Janamat Party and independents have challenged their social base. Independents won 5 seats in the parliament. They along with Nepal Peasants and Workers Party, Rastriya Janamukti Moarcha, each with 1 seat and independents will make an entry into the parliament and bring critical voice on national issues. Despite the second generation leaders’ preference for left unity, both Maoist-Centre and CPN Unified-Socialist find risk in switching sides and alienating NC.
Top leaders of NC Deuba, CPN-UML Oli, Maoist-Center Prachanda and CPN-Unified Socialist Madhav Kumar Nepal have won with great margin and given continuity to their political survival but it is not a guarantee to their decisive role. Critical voices within the parties and outside will continue to haunt their political psychology and force each of them to face perpetual fear of tearing parties apart if not properly managed the restlessness of second generations of leaders.
The emergence of new political parties with untested leadership attracted the voters aspiring to change the political culture of the nation. As a symbol of the critique of the vices of senior leaders they promise to minimize the toxic agents of the system and change the lives of people and the face of the nation. Many voters who found no electoral choice to power bloc politics favored small parties and independent candidates. This shifting electoral trend indicates fading electoral stability and growing de-alignment between parties and voters.
The collapse of ideological politics marked the rise of personalization of parties, weakening of social solidarity and bonding with non-political elements of society. This can open the future government of any political combination to political instability unless Nepali leaders keep themselves negatively free from patronage and personalized interest to assert positive power to reconcile with democratic and constitutional norms of serving public and national interests.
It is equally important to provide civic education to maximize voting turnout, minimize invalid voting and the virtues of good citizens who are well-informed before casting their ballot papers and socialized for active citizenship, not ill-informed about politics and public policy, dictated by necessity and having no stake in democracy. Alienation of voters from political consciousness and subjected to whip, divide and rule and command and control politics mark only the superficial representation of the nation’s diversity.
The quality of politics in Nepal has suffered as leaders raised issues contrary to the spirit of constitution and furnished groupthink mentality owing to their common source of political acculturation and external legitimacy. They need to address an abundance of urgent issues, improve themselves and their communities to build the nation’s democratic future beyond the syndicated nature of power bloc politics.