As federal and provincial polls are nearby, the month of October saw some dramatic developments – Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP) quitted the ruling alliance to form an electoral alliance with the main opposition CPN UML while the Loktantrik Samajwadi Party (LSP) joined hands with the ruling coalition. Following this, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba sacked four ministers of the JSP – and, in response, Chief Minister of Madhes Pradesh sacked three ministers of Nepali Congress. On October 9, candidates filed nominations for the federal and provincial first-past-the-post (FPTP) polls. Besides, the Election Commission got dragged into controversy for failing to effectively and impartially implement its code of conduct.
Timeline of Major Events
|October 8||Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP) left ruling alliance to form electoral coalition with the CPN UML and LSP (Loktantrik Samajwadi Party) joined hands with the Nepali Congress-led electoral alliance|
|October 9||Candidates filed nominations for federal and provincial FPTP polls.|
|October 13||PM Deuba sacked four ministers representing the Janata Samajwadi Party.|
|October 14||The Chief Minister of Madhesh province sacked three ministers representing Nepali Congress.|
|October 20||Election Commission asked Nepal Police to take action against the former Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal for breaching election code of conduct.|
|October 25||The Election Commission issued a statement warning against “No, Not Again” campaign.|
Last Minute Reshuffles in the Electoral Coalitions
For months, the ruling alliance made attempts to strike a deal on seat-sharing between the five member parties for the forthcoming federal and provincial first-past-the-post (FPTP) polls – but to no avail. In the last-minute drama that unfolded just a day before nominations, People’s Socialist Party (Janata Samajbadi Party, JSP) left the ruling alliance and joined hands with the main opposition CPN UML. Once the JSP which enjoys a strong foothold in the Madhes region left the ruling alliance, its main rival in the region Loktrantrik Samajwadi Party switched camps and joined Nepali Congress-led electoral alliance. In the newly reshuffled ruling coalition, the Nepali Congress kept 91 FPTP House of Representative Seats to contest while the CPN Maoist Center 45, CPN Unified Socialist 20, Rastriya Janamorcha 2, and the new entrant Loktrantrik Samajwadi Party got 8 seats to contest.
The Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP) had claimed for twenty-five of one hundred and sixty-five total FPTP seats of the federal parliament with the NC-led ruling alliance – the ruling alliance had proposed sixteen seats, just a seat less to what the JSP eventually got in its electoral arrangements with the CPN UML. However, the JSP chose to leave the ruling alliance and joined hands with the CPN UML prioritizing the provincial polls over the federal one. CPN UML has provided 42 FPTP provincial seats for the JSP to contest while keeping 70 for itself. This seat arrangement could enable the JSP to retain its position as the largest party in the provincial parliament of the Madhes Pradesh and form the provincial government once again. Following this dramatic development, PM Deuba sacked four ministers of the Janata Samajwadi Party on October 13. In response, the Chief Minister of Madesh Pradesh Lal Babu Raut who represents the Janata Samajwadi Party, sacked three ministers of the Nepali Congress.
While in the past, calculations for and at the center determined moves of the parties throughout the nation, this instance of JSP switching sides prioritizing provincial polls could be read as an early indication of federalism being effective in decentralizing power.
Intra-party Rife Fuelled by Electoral Coalitions
Of late, electoral coalition has become more a necessity than a choice. Changing political landscape and elections which entail both first-past-the-post and proportional representation systems have made it difficult for any party to secure a majority on its own. It, is therefore, that the parties have gone to lengths in forging electoral coalitions. However, on the other hand, electoral coalitions have also led to increased intra-party rife which is most evident, but not limited to, the Nepali Congress. With a coalition in place, many aspiring candidates who were denied tickets by the party have forayed into the election as dissident candidates. The Nepali Congress then asked those candidates to pull out of the race – lest be subjected to expulsion. While some withdrew, there are still as many as two dozen dissident candidates in the race.
Since a consensus had to be reached for a single candidate among numerous aspirants vying to contest from different parties in each coalition, other parties too have quite a few dissident candidates of their own. The coercive strategy adopted by the establishment faction of the party – that by PM Deuba-led faction in the Nepali Congress, and KP Oli-led faction in the CPN UML – has also fuelled intra-party tensions. This time round, if or not, electoral coalitions will translate into electoral success for each major party could also be determined by the electoral performance of those rebel candidates.
To add to this, surprise victories of a few independent candidates in the local polls held last May has given a way to a slew of independent candidacies throughout the nation. This could spell further trouble for mainstream parties already trapped in the quagmire of intra-party and inter-party feuds.
Elections as Arithmetic Games, Electoral Agendas Out of the Focus
The last-minute reshuffle in electoral alliance is reflective of the trend in which elections are being reduced to pure arithmetic games. There is hardly any affinity in political positions amongst parties in either of the coalitions. The electoral alliance between parties with conflicting ideologies, policies and contrasting voter bases – like that of the democratic party Nepali Congress and communist parties CPN Maoist Center, CPN Unified Socialist, in and of itself, is against the spirit of democratic elections. Likewise, on the opposition front, the Janata Samajwadi Party had labelled the CPN UML as an “anti-Madhes party” and had been against the unconstitutional dissolution of the lower house twice by the erstwhile PM KP Sharma Oli. Even in the case of Amendment Bill to the Citizenship Act 2006, positions of these two parties are poles apart. All these differences, however, fell short for the two when it came to arithmetic of the polls.
Almost all political parties, and the major ones even more so, are complicit in reducing elections to number games. Elections in essence are about contestations not just between representatives of parties but that of policies, plans, programs and ideologies. Of late, electoral coalitions have become more of a necessity than a choice – but this can, in no way, be a leeway for political parties to reduce elections to purely strategic games. The upcoming federal and provincial polls are envisioned to elect lawmakers at the respective levels – and political parties should have put effort to make elections equally about contestations of their plans and policies for the next five years. To the contrary, contestants, more often than not, have resorted to demagogic narratives, populist rhetoric, and have made lofty promises of deliveries that don’t even fall under their authority.
Biased Moves of the Election Commission
On October 20, the Election Commission (EC) asked Nepal Police to take action against the former Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal for breaching election code of conduct – Nepal had promised, should he win the election, unemployed youths of his constituency would be provided with free training for foreign employment and then be sent abroad free of cost. The EC’s move to take action against Nepal is commendable but the leader of Nepali Congress Arju Deuba Rana, who also happens to be the first lady, hasn’t yet been asked for clarifications for making similar claims while campaigning for the Prime Minister Deuba. This is indicative that the commission has been acting in behest of those in power. Likewise, on October 25, the EC warned that those involved in negative campaigning against veteran leaders on social media platforms with the theme of “No, Not Again” would risk legal actions. EC’s warning violates the general public’s right to expression, and is also against the spirit of democratic elections. The move was met with criticisms from across the spectrum – and rightfully so. These are just a couple of representative cases – the Election Commission (EC), by and large, has failed to ensure fair and proper implementations of the code of conduct.
In general, while a few individual candidates are asked to furnish clarifications for violating code provisions, the powerful ones are provided with a free pass – and no actions whatsoever are taken if violators are major political parties. As a semi-autonomous constitutional body, the EC should have exercised its autonomy as ensured by the constitution, and maintained impartiality. The inability to do so has raised a pertinent question – if elections are, at all, free and fair.