A few days back, while taking my evening constitutional around Patan, I ran into Omkar Shrestha near Kupondole’s Hanumanthan. For those who many not remember, he was Nepali Kangress stalwart of Patan, a follower of KP Bhattarai and a former minister. I asked him what he thought of the just completed local elections, and he replied without hesitation:
“I am very happy. This is the start of the rejuvenation of decayed democracy in Nepal.”
He was referring to the amazing win of independents and party rebels in Kathmandu, Dharan, Janakpur, Kailali and many other places. On the way back home via Bakhundole, I ran into Kishore Thapa in front of his Sajha-Bibeksheel party headquarters. In the last elections, he had garnered significant Kathmandu votes and lost with a small margin. Despite Sajha-Bibeksheel putting up educated, competent and clean candidates, he was surprised why even the voters who had previously voted for him chose to cast their ballots en massefor Balen Shah. My explanation was that the ideological rift in his party with the rebel faction showing slavish kowtowing to Maoist political agenda which gave the message that this party was no different from Kangress and EhMaLaise!
Local elections this past month have brought about an unexpected seismic upheaval in stagnant Nepali politics. It has inspired and galvanized the youth to think that change is possible. A tweet shown to me from a young college student to his friend and the friend’s reply is an excellent indicator of that fundamental shift in mood from hopeless despondency to buoyant optimism:
“You were talking of migrating abroad. Do you still think so?”
“No, now I think I can do something here!”
The results of these local elections will be analyzed and parsed to great detail in the days and months ahead, especially since country-wide elections to the national parliament will have to be held in the coming six to eight months. Media houses such as Himal Khabarpatrika and Setopatihave already begun trying to figure out the mass psychology of Nepali voters and this kind of reflections will be media staples in the days ahead. One can, however, appreciate the broad contours of such reflections and already highlight key conclusions that have begun to emerge.
The first lesson is that which has to be drawn from the amazing victory of independent candidates. The victory of Balen Shah in capital city Kathmandu and Harka Sampang in Gorkha Lahurey town Dharan are particularly significant. Balen, although born and raised in core Kathmandu area, is barely thirty years old and is of Madheshi origin. His defeating Newar candidates from Kangress (daughter-in-law of Ganeshman Singh and wife of major power broker Prakash Man Singh) and UML (former mayor Keshab Sthapit) was most unexpected by the political cognoscenti right up to the start of counting of votes. It implies two significant trends that will only grow in the days ahead.
First, educated voters of the capital city have rejected communal politics that has been the bane of 2005 Delhi Deal-inspired Loktrantra by electing a Madheshi-origin mayor in Kathmandu and a Newar mayor in Birganj. In general, Nepali voters never bought communalism because they never gave Madhesi and other ethnic parties much support, preferring to elect more ecumenical Kangress and communists. The message this time around to the communal parties is simple: your time is up; give up this politics of victimhood; and better think of becoming a pan-Nepal party or else you will be swept into the dustbin of history.
Second, young generation (and given our demographics, they are the bulk of the voters that would swing elections) have politically come of age and are stepping out from their comfort/escape zone into politics to shape their own future. The Balens, Deepak Joshis of Tanahu and many others in lower offices have given a powerful message that the time of failed leaders and parties is over, that they are not willing to give a pass to decades of failure and stagnation any more. Even the independents who lost have done so with very small margins that point to a growth of self-confidence among many other reticent ones and the urge to come out with their candidacies in the future.
The win of Harka Sampang in Dharan as well as the candidacy of other independents even when they lost by small margins has been without the use of money and muscle power. Sampang had no large rallies; instead, his was a lone house-to-house, street corner-to-street corner one-man campaign. In the local elections five years back, he had managed to garner only a few hundred votes. This time he defeated a sure-win coalition Kangress candidate by a wide margin. What Dharan voters seem to have appreciated are his simple, corruption-free campaign and single-point message of improving Dharan’s water supply and allied municipal services.
The second lesson that emerges is that Nepali voters are beginning to see themselves as increasingly independent, that they are not tied serfs to any political party, that they consider a candidate’s integrity more important than party affiliation. While reporting in partisan Sahuji media has been of Nepali Kangress winning the largest number mayoral seats with the UML second and Maoists third, a deconstruction of the numbers indicates something else. Given that this is a flawed “first past the post” system where one does not need 50% or more of votes to win (indeed ALL winners currently have won with minority votes, with often more than two-thirds of those who actually voted having voted for other candidates), winning in most cases does not mean mass support. In terms of actual total votes won, UML with its strong local base seems to have come out first with some 36% votes with Kangress second at 29%. This will have serious implications for parties going for national elections in half a year’s time.
The other facts to consider are that in many places where Kangress has won, it has done so by demolishing (for example Kavre or Jhapa) decades old UML stronghold. Similarly, UML has won by capturing Kangress and especially Maoist bastions, of the latter in the Tarai. Examples include Itahari or Madi in Chitwan, and Kaski where UML won 23 of 29 wards. Also, where UML lost (as in Bharatpur or Pokhara mayorship) it did so by putting up a disliked Oli loyalist over a genuinely popular local leader. Significant also is the fact that national stature leaders lost local elections in their own home wards to the opposition, Oli in Jhapa, Sher Bahadur Deuba in Dandeldhura, Gagan Thapa in Kathmandu, Madhav Nepal in Bara and so on. Moreover, wherever the big parties repeated their candidates, almost 60% lost their elections.
The incompetence of the National Election Commission has also come to light. Nominated by party honchos, the commissioners have unwittingly demonstrated partisanship and lack of foresight, waiting for signals from party bosses rather than taking independent decisions in the conduct of elections. The fact that almost 25% of the votes were invalid is telling! In some cases it was as high as 34%, mainly because the ballot paper was cumbersome and of the size of an unfolded daily newspaper, and that symbols of parties were included who did not even have candidates for that particular post. It confused even educated voters. Why could they not have had simpler separate ballot papers for different contested posts and different coloured ballot boxes to cast them in as was done even in Panchayat days?
Pokhara’s case is most interesting on this count. UML put up a mayoral candidate who was quickly exposed in social media as a jewelry thief! UML replaced him by Krishna Bahadur Thapa who had an unsavoury record as being anti-Dalit with a case on the issue of caste discrimination pending in the court, something strange and ironic for a so-called “progressive Marxist communist” party! A massive and unprecedented mobilization of Dalits occurred that led to a sure win for the UML going to another communist leader from the breakaway UML faction.
The one big message to emerge from all these results – win of independents and party rebel candidates, pariah-treated parties like RPP doubling and tripling their vote count, big parties demolishing the other’s stronghold etc. – is the total disgust of Nepali voters for established big parties and their leadership that have ruled the roost for much of last three decades. This reality is already beginning to haunt top big party leadership as the country heads for national elections in half-a-years’ time. The debate is, and should be, intense in questioning the lack of policy and vision among established parties, of the entrenched neo-feudalism therein, of their erstwhile pandering to communal forces, as well as their refusal to implement electoral reforms including the Supreme Court’s decision to ensure “none of the above” vote box in the ballots. Question should also be asked: why should local elections be held in ALL local bodies in one day instead of staggering it throughout the year? And why should more sensible ballot papers not be printed locally once the actual contending list of candidates and parties emerge?