May Analysis: Domestic Politics and Governance

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Timeline of Key Events

DatesEvents 
May 13         Local polls were held across the country.
May 16          Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Lumbini.
May 17         The budget session of the parliament convened.
May 20          Pre-budget discussion of the parliament ended.
May 29Finance Minister Janardan Sharma presented the annual budget.

Local polls held throughout the country

The second-ever local poll since Nepal’s transition into a federal republic with three tiers of government was held on May 13th. About sixty-three percent of 17,733,723 registered voters participated in the election to elect 35,221 representatives for 753 local units.As many as seventy-nine political parties and 145,011 contestants competed for various posts, out of which three hundred ninety were elected unopposed.Although there were a few occurrences of violent incidents. The local poll was, in general, free, fair and peaceful across the country. However, owing to logistical challenges, vote counting was sluggish, and the results kept trickling in for the entire second half of the month.

Electoral Coalition paid off for the ruling alliance

The ruling five-party alliance had forged an electoral alliance for polls in almost one-third of the 753 local units. However, owing to interparty and intraparty disputes about coalition and selection of the consensus candidates, only in twelve of seventy-seven districts, did a full-fledged alliance of the ruling alliance materialise. Despite this, almost all parties of the ruling alliance benefitted from the coalition. The Nepali Congress emerged victorious, winning three hundred and twenty-nine local units. The electoral alliance enabled the NC to gain an edge against its main rival the CPN UML which is now pushed to the distant second position with victories in only two hundred and five local units. Even in the last local election of 2017, the Nepali Congress and the CPN Maoist had forged an election coalition but the CPN UML had still managed to win the largest number of local units. However, this time around, the Nepali Congress has a lead of more than one hundred local units against the CPN UML – and in more than one-third of the local units that Nepali Congress won, it had the backing of other parties in the ruling alliance.

Photo: RSS

Likewise, the CPN Maoist Centre which had been in a steady decline over the years emerged as a formidable political force winning as many as one hundred and twenty-one local units.  In more than half of the seats that the CPN Maoist Center won, it was backed by the Nepali Congress and/or other parties of the ruling alliance. The next party of the ruling alliance, the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP), won thirty local units. Although the JSP couldn’t perform at par with the Nepali Congress or the CPN Maoist Center; and performed below expectations even in Madhes – a region where it has a strong foothold – the electoral alliance was still instrumental for the JSP in securing victories in those thirty local units. Likewise, the CPN Unified Socialist – a new party formed by splitting from the CPN UML – won only twenty local units and couldn’t benefit much from the alliance owing to its weak political and organisational base. The leader of the party Madhav Kumar Nepal then accused that the dismal electoral performance had to do with some parties of the ruling alliance not cooperating fully with his party.

On the other side, the CPN UML which had forged an election coalition with some fringe parties performed poorly compared to the local election of 2017. The last time, CPN UML had won two hundred and ninety-four units which got reduced to two hundred and five units in this poll. CPN UML’s performance indicates that a party can’t rely solely on the popularity of a leader – in this case, K P Sharma Oli – to pull off an electoral success. The result also heralds further difficulties for the CPN UML, now that the ruling alliance is more likely to continue with an electoral alliance in both the upcoming provincial and federal elections.

CPN UML resorted to the “rigged election” narrative

Once results started trickling in, and the early trend of the CPN UML performing poorly compared to the Nepali Congress started to emerge, the CPN UML accused the ruling alliance of rigging the election. The UML, on May 14, issued a statement and alleged that the “ruling alliance mobilised bureaucrats, and security personnel in rigging before, during and after the election.” The UML highlighted fifteen different points to support the claim but the fact that the UML chose to wait for the early trend of the election to accuse of rigging “before, during and after the election” is telling in itself. Those accusations don’t hold any ground because it is apparent that the CPN UML chose a convenient narrative of a “rigged election” to justify its poor performance rather than going into the introspection of its shortcomings – the unconstitutional moves of dissolving the lower house twice which had led to the year-long political and constitutional crisis, and its failure to deliver on the front of good governance. And the CPN UML hasn’t even undertaken any legal proceedings for the same. As a party which has led the government a couple of times over the years, the CPN UML should have accepted the defeat in grace as a natural outcome of an electoral contest. However, that it chose not to do so raises questions over the party’s commitment to democratic values and ideals. The communist parties of Nepal, more often than not, have taken refuge in this narrative following poor electoral performances – and such narratives have only added to further corrode the trust of the public in democratic institutions and democratic processes.

Discontents against the mainstream political parties in a few urban centers

In Kathmandu metropolitan city, an independent candidate Balendra Shah (Balen) won the mayoral contest. Similarly, independent candidates Harka Raj Sampang Rai and Gopal Hamal won the post of mayor in Dharan and Dhangadi sub-metropolitan cities respectively. These independent candidates, with no organisational structure and voter base to rely on, outperforming well-established political parties is a new trend that has emerged this election. This is the first time, after the reintroduction of democracy in 1990 that independent candidates have won in major cities. Further, as many as three hundred and eighty-five independent candidates won for different posts across the country. These results are reflective of the discontent of constituents particularly that of the urban educated middle class, against mainstream political parties. Those parties have failed to deliver good governance over the years which has resulted in disillusionment amongst a section of the population. As of now, this trend is confined to a few urban areas but should the mainstream political parties fail to deliver yet again, space for alternative politics is likely to grow in the days to come.

Issues of local units out of focus in the local polls

The three tiers of government are envisioned to effectively decentralise the state structure – and therefore during the local polls, issues concerning the effective implementation of the three tiers of government and problems of local bodies should have been in the focus. Likewise, policies about local bodies, issues of corruption and development should have been the factors shaping the results of the local polls. But local polls too were reduced to a mere number and strategy games by the political parties. For the last two months, prospects of coalitions, and inter party, intraparty disputes made the headlines while issues of local bodies were almost completely sidelined. When reduced to mere number games, elections in essence become perfunctory and don’t serve their true purpose. This, however, has been continuing for years ever since the practice of multiparty democracy, and has become one major challenge in Nepal’s transition to democratic maturity.

The budget session of the parliament convened

On May 17, the budget session of the parliament convened. The main opposition UML decided to end the obstruction of the parliament after eight long months and allowed the house to function properly. Since last September, the opposition UML had been obstructing the house over the speaker’s refusal to confirm the expulsion of 14 lawmakers of the CPN Unified Socialist – a splinter party of the CPN UML. Through continued obstruction of the house for months, the CPN UML aimed at justifying ex-PM Oli’s unconstitutional move of dissolving the lower house twice by rendering the house dysfunctional. As a consequence, in those eight months, the house had only managed to pass the budgetary bills of the last fiscal year and ratify the MCC compact. Finally, this time around, the CPN UML corrected its course and decided to end the longest ever obstruction in Nepal’s parliamentary history. The poor performance in the local polls could have played part in UML’s decision to let the house function because, unlike the CPN UML’s expectations, the party’s decision to defend unconstitutional moves of dissolving the lower house twice ultimately proved costly even in the polls. With the CPN UML ending its months-long obstruction, the budget session of the parliament ran smoothly and held deliberations over the upcoming budget. On May 20, the house concluded its pre-budget discussion, and on May 29th, the finance minister Janardan Sharma presented an annual budget of Rs. 1.793 trillion for the fiscal year 2022-23.

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