Kathmandu: The polls on Thursday are the last phase of Nepal’s first parliamentary and provincial assembly elections to be held after the promulgation of the country’s constitution in 2015. The elections are expected to end the prolonged political transition from what was once a Hindu monarchy to a secular, federal, democratic republic and bring about political stability.
The elections are taking place amidst intense political polarisation, particularly with the formation of the Left alliance comprising the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN)-United Marxist Leninist (UML) and CPN-Maoist Centre. On top of that, the electoral battle between the Left alliance, apparently backed by China, and the Nepali Congress, which is seen as closer to India than other parties based on historical ties, may also determine whether Chinese or Indian interests over development projects will prevail thereafter.
The assembly elections are a part of the major changes brought about by the constitution and its amendment, which institutionalised federalism, republicanism, inclusion and secularism. These changes were the outcome of different political movements, including a decade-long civil war (1996-2006), the Jana Andolan II (2006) against the monarchy and the Madhes movements of 2007, 2008 and 2015.
The first round of parliamentary and provincial assembly elections was held in 32 districts on November 26, while Thursday’s elections are taking place in 45 districts.
These elections will elect 275 members to the House of Representatives (HoR) and 550 representatives to the assemblies of the seven newly-created provinces. The country has adopted a mixed electoral system, using both the first-past-the-post (FPTP) and proportional representation systems. The 275-member HoR comprises 165 MPs elected under the FPTP system and 110 MPs elected through the proportional representation system. Out of the 275 seats in the HoR, a party or alliance requires 138 seats to form the government.
If the elections go smoothly, the country will likely get the stable government many people are hoping for. However, others doubt whether this stability will last the next five years if dissenting voices against the constitution are not addressed through an amendment.
Electoral violence on the rise
The number of incidents of electoral violence ahead of the second round of parliamentary and provincial assembly elections is higher than during the first round held on November 26 and the local level elections held on September 18. Last Monday, Gagan Thapa, Nepali Congress candidate for Kathmandu constituency 4, was among 11 people injured after a bomb exploded at Chapali Height, a neighbourhood in the capital. Thapa is an influential youth leader in Nepali politics. The incident has been widely condemned.
A temporary policeman deployed for the elections to Dang district in the western Terai region (close to the border with India’s Uttar Pradesh), died a day after being injured when a bomb, reportedly targeting Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s election campaign, exploded on November 28.
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There is an increase in the intensity and frequency of electoral violence, with election candidates and party cadres being targeted. Reports claim that the Netra Bikram Chand aka ‘Biplab’-led faction of the communist party, a splinter Maoist group opposed to the CPN-Maoist Centre’s foray into mainstream politics, is involved in violent activities with the motive to intimidate voters.
Expressing its concerns over the situation, the Election Commission (EC) on November 30 ordered the authorities to ensure security for the elections. The National Human Rights Commission also called on the concerned authorities to take adequate security measures to ensure free and fair elections. Ironically, the home ministry, which is currently under Nepal’s prime minister, is not seen as an effective authority to deal with security challenges.
Meanwhile, talking to the media, chief election commissioner Ayodhi Prasad Yadav asked voters to cast their votes without fear. He said the commission is confident about security arrangements made for the polls.
Changed political context
The parliamentary and provincial assembly elections are taking place under a changed political context. The trajectory of politics in the country shifted dramatically after the successful completion of local level elections. On eve of the two-round parliamentary and provincial assembly elections, the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN)-United Marxist Leninist (UML) and CPN-Maoist Center formed an alliance on October 3, a turn of events that even astute political analysts failed to predict. The alliance was surprising because though the two parties share the ‘communist’ label, they have been rivals for decades and did not agree on various contentious issues, including federalism, citizenship and inclusion.
The Nepali Congress had not prepared itself to counter the Left alliance. Immediately, Prime Minister Deuba, who is also Nepali Congress president, called on forces such as the Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal and Madhesi parties like the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN) and Federal Socialist Forum Nepal (FSFN) to join a “broader democratic alliance” with an intent to counter the Left alliance. The Congress’s call did not yield any substantial results.
The Congress, which leads the incumbent government, also tried its best to postpone the elections by at least a few days so that it could have more time for preparation. India was also reportedly actively supporting the party in trying to do so. A Supreme Court intervention was likely to postpone the elections by a few days, but it was too late for the party by then. The Left alliance opposed any change in date, and so did the Madhesi parties.
Left alliance vs Nepali Congress
During the election campaign, Deuba asked voters to make a choice between democracy or the ‘authoritarianism’ of Leftist rule while casting their votes. On the other hand, CPN-UML chairperson K.P. Sharma Oli, accusing the Nepali Congress of spreading rumours about his party, claimed that only a majority government formed under the leadership of the Left alliance can bring long-lasting development in the country.
The election campaigns of the Nepali Congress and Left alliance have been focused on attacking each other, Jhalak Subedi, a columnist, told The Wire. He added that these parties were reluctant to talk to voters about pertinent issues, such as the functioning of federal and provincial assemblies, although they mentioned those issues in their manifestos. “This was disappointing,” he said.
Unlike other provinces, the election campaign tactics of the major rival parties has not really worked in Province 2. The constitutional amendment agenda used by the Madhesi parties in their campaign has caught people’s attention here, Chandrakishore, a prominent journalist and political analyst, told The Wire.
A section of Kathmandu thinks that whatever Madhesi parties do fulfils Indian interests. However, a recent move by these parties has surprised not just Kathmandu but also Delhi. Instead of joining the Nepali Congress for the “broader democratic alliance”, both Madhesi parties – RJPN and FSFN – fielded a common candidate under the FPTP electoral system. In Province 2, Madhesi parties have emerged as competition to the Nepali Congress. These dynamics are likely to affect the two-thirds majority claimed by the Left alliance, since the mood in Madhes is against the Nepali Congress and the Left alliance, Chandrakishore said. Mahesh Chaurasiya, press coordinator for FSFN, the Madhesi party led by Upendra Yadav, also thinks the same.
Madhesi parties are likely to be elected with a majority in Province 2, and they will once again press for constitutional amendments in order to address the dissenting voices of Madhesis, Tharus, Janjatis and women.
India and China closely eye Nepal polls
Ahead of the parliamentary and provincial assembly elections, Deuba recently cancelled the Budhi Gandaki hydropower project which had been contracted to a Chinese company by the previous government. It is learnt that the project will be assigned to an Indian contractor. However, UML chairperson Oli said that he would revive the project after coming into power.
As the government that will be formed after the elections is supposed to be in power for the next five years, India and China are closely watching the polls. The results are likely to determine which country’s interests are served on development and infrastructure projects.
A majority for the Left alliance is imminent if the results of the recently-concluded local level elections, where CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist Center had emerged as the first and third parties, are anything to go by. If this comes true and the Left alliance backed by Beijing forms the government, New Delhi fears it will lose its influence over Nepal.
Praveen Kumar Yadav is a Nepali journalist writing on politics, development, human rights and social justice. He tweets at @iPrav33n.