26Jan2023

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Tag: Election Commission

OP-EDs and Columns

Nepali Voters Deliver a Fractured Mandate in Parliamentary Elections

– SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 29 November 2022. Please read the original article here.

The Nepali Congress (NC), which heads Nepal’s ruling coalition, has emerged as the single largest party in the parliamentary elections held on November 20. It is followed by the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), the main opposition party.

While the CPN-UML received marginally more votes than the NC under the proportional representation (PR) system (where voters cast a ballot for parties), the NC’s stronger showing under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system put it ahead in the race to form Nepal’s next government. Most of the votes have been counted, but the total number of seats won by each party will take a few more days to be tallied. Meanwhile, leaders are engaging in hectic meetings, each seeking to corner a share in the next government.

In the run-up to the voting, analysts had described this election as a defining moment in Nepali politics. Voter frustration with the establishment’s inability to deliver economic growth and good governance was running high. The victory of a few young candidates in local elections held in May indicated that young, independent, and non-political candidates can take on and win big against the traditional political elite.

However, results from the parliamentary election indicate that this was an incrementally progressive election, but not transformational. The three major establishment parties came on top. The NC and the CPN-UML were followed by the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center (CPN-MC) in third place. The National Independent Party (NIP), a party registered barely a few months before the election, came in fourth.

Yet this election represented a break from the past; it displayed some new facets. First, voters unambiguously expressed frustration at the establishment. Six current ministers and 60 former parliamentarians lost their bids to return to parliament. Though the three major parties avoided the worst outcome, many of their senior leaders failed to win their seats.

Second, the NIP reaped the benefits of voter frustration and has emerged as a significant force in national politics. Voters exercised their franchise in favor of establishment candidates in the FPTP but used their PR vote in favor of the NIP. The NIP apparently chipped away votes from the three major establishment parties. Each of those three parties lost about 3 percentage points in vote share compared to 2017. The NIP has received 11 percent of the votes.

Third, people’s frustration also manifested at the regional level. A new regional party led by C.K. Raut disrupted the established order in Madhes province in southern Nepal in national and provincial elections.

The election also marks a comeback of social and political conservatism in Nepali politics. The Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), a monarchist and Hindu-nationalist party, won seven seats and almost 6 percent of the votes (in the 2017 election, it won one seat and 2 percent of the votes). A liberal agenda has dominated Nepali politics since 2006.

No party or coalition has received a clear mandate. At least three parties must cobble together a coalition to form a government unless the two main rivals, NC and CPN (UML) come together. This will likely create more instability and horse-trading among parliamentarians and parties. The pre-poll alliances were bereft of any ideology. The lust for power would only intensify in such a hung parliament. Hence, there will be more instability. The grand-left coalition won a significant majority in the last election, yet its reign ended acrimoniously within three years.

More coalition partners would mean a weaker government. The prime minister-to-be will find it difficult to impose his vision on the council of ministers. In the current ruling coalition, the ministers were answerable more to their party chief than the prime minister. To ensure his government’s survival, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba could not even sack Finance Minister Janardan Sharma of the CPN-MC.

The NIP rode the anti-establishment sentiment and promise of good governance without detailing how to deliver. The party, which is more a coalition of a wide range of candidates disappointed with the establishment, is untested. It is not yet clear if the NIP will be a part of the government or sit in the opposition.

On foreign policy, all parties have touted non-alignment and “balanced” policies in their manifestos based on the principles of the United Nations and the Panchasheel. However, there are subtle differences among parties, such as the NC’s preference for grants and not loans. This is an apparent reference to funding for Belt and Road Initiative projects.

A cobbled coalition of multiple parties will be weak and not assertive in foreign policy. Neither will such a coalition change the track radically. This would neither be the best outcome for any major powers (such as India, the United States, or China) nor would it be the worst. It would also mean that Nepali foreign policy is likely to be reactive and ad hoc.

The CPN-MC and Communist Party of Nepal–United Socialist (CPN-US) have vowed to regulate the border with India and review the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with India. However, they are unlikely to follow it up in any meaningful way, even if they are part of the ruling coalition. No party presented its concrete view on issues requiring immediate attention, such as the Agnipath scheme. India has already reached out to key leaders of the ruling coalition.

The United States has concerns over the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)’s implementation. The MCC is a $500-million grant for building energy and transport infrastructure. The Nepali parliament ratified the agreement earlier in February after a toxic debate. Similarly, China would like a more Beijing-friendly government to ensure the implementation of BRI projects.

These major global powers will jockey for influence in Nepal. The next government will have to manage the major world powers, whose interests in Nepal do not align. The next government has its task cut out. But its foreign policy can only be sorted if the domestic house is in order.

OP-EDs and Columns

Young Candidates Rattle the Old Guard in Nepal’s Elections

– SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 18 November 2022. Please read the original article here.

Nepal is less than two days away from voting in federal and provincial elections. Campaigning for votes ended at midnight on November 17, and the country has entered a cooling-off period before voting on November 20.

The primary contest is between the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress (NC) and the opposition coalition led by former Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML). This election has marked a surge in independent candidates challenging the old guard, which has traditionally dominated Nepali politics, in ways never seen in the past.

Since 1990, when Nepal became a multi-party parliamentary democracy it has had 28 governments led by 14 leaders. Deuba has held the post of prime minister for a record five times, since his first stint in 1995. Though parties and politicians compete fiercely against each other in elections, shared interests, which include power and business contracts, do see them join hands from time to time.

New political forces have entered politics in recent years only to become clones of the older parties. Consider the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center (CPN-MC), for instance, which entered mainstream politics in 2006, after waging a 10-year insurgency. Today, it is no longer distinguishable from the other mainstream parties.

Over the decades, Nepal has gone through major political transformations. It experimented with multi-party democracy, an absolute monarchy and a constitutional one, republicanism, and federal republicanism. While the system changed, the actors remained the same.

At the same time, governance has gone from bad to worse. Corruption has become institutionalized. Political ideology is in a coma, replaced by petty self-interest. Power is no longer the means but a goal in itself.

This has led to extreme frustration among the people.

The Nepali people have embraced political change and newer political forces in the hope of better governance. They gave a chance to the CPN-MC and made it the largest party in the first elections that it contested after the insurgency, hoping it would provide better governance. They also gave the grand-left alliance in 2017 a chance. Unfortunately, both did not deliver the goods.ADVERTISEMENT

When they were not presented with new options, they chose between the two “known devils” – the NC and the CPN-UML.

Elections to local bodies in May this year were a game-changer. Forty percent of the candidates in the election were between 21 and 40 years of age. The election of Balendra Shah, a young and independent candidate, as Kathmandu’s mayor shook the establishment to the core. Shah’s opponents and analysts had dismissed his candidacy. But the lackluster performance of the previous mayor of the CPN-UML, poor candidate selection by the mainstream parties, and innovative and disciplined campaigning by Shah’s supporters propelled him to power against all odds.

Shah’s victory in the local polls has prompted several independent and young Nepalis to throw their hat in the ring in the general election. They are challenging the old guard.

Sagar Dhakal, a 31-year-old engineer, is running against Deuba in the latter’s home turf. Initially, Deuba was dismissive of Dhakal’s candidature and did not bother to campaign. Meanwhile, Dhakal engaged voters directly on the ground.

With Dhakal evoking remarkable enthusiasm, even among older voters, a worried Deuba rushed to his constituency to campaign. He can no longer take the constituency, which elected him in every election since 1990, for granted.

Similarly, Deuba’s alliance partner, Dahal is contesting this time from a new constituency – Gorkha, instead of his hometown in Chitwan. The former Maoist leader, who is often referred to by his nom de guerre Prachanda or “fearless one,” has given his decision to shift constituencies a positive spin. He claimed that the decision emerged from a position of strength, i.e. he can win from any constituency. His opponents, however, allege that he “ran away” seeking a safer constituency.

Young, independent candidates with no background in politics are giving the mainstream parties’ candidates a run for their money. Senior NC leaders such as Prakash Man Singh and Gagan Thapa are not assured of victory in the capital. There is similar competition in some other urban centers.

Second-tier leaders from the mainstream parties, especially in urban areas, are facing a stiff challenge from political novices. These include former Lumbini province Chief Minister Shankar Pokharel, Vice Chairman of the Planning Commission Bishow Paudel and prime ministerial aspirant Gagan Thapa.

Mainstream political parties are projecting confidence before the public but express concern in private.

This is not to suggest that the independent candidates will overthrow the existing political order or come to power. On the contrary, the NC and CPN-UML are still favored to emerge as the two largest parties. However, candidates cannot take their victory as a given.ADVERTISEMENT

The challenge from the young candidates has forced the older, mainstream politicians to introspect. It has pressured them to go to the voters directly and engage them. Besides, if some challengers win, it will break the existing self-serving cartel between the mainstream parties. Also, a loss for any of the party supremos will send chills down the spine of all others.

Victories, or even a close run, for some independent candidates, will send a strong message but will not upset the current order. In a parliamentary system, parties are essential. It is more so in Nepal, where the national parties can use a whip that requires parliamentarians to vote along party lines or face a penalty, and parliamentarians hardly defy party lines.

This election is pivotal. In the lust for power, parties have sidelined ideology. Will the voters sideline traditional party/voting affiliation in their desire for good governance? We are about to find out.

OP-EDs and Columns

Coalitions in the Fray in Nepal’s Elections Are Marriages of Convenience

– SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 25 October 2022. Please read the original article here.

Nepal is in the grip of election fever. The main contest is between two coalitions: the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Nepali Congress (NC), and the opposition alliance led by Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML).

These are the second round of federal and provincial elections to be held in Nepal since the promulgation of the constitution in 2015.

The “unnatural” coalitions have left many flabbergasted. Kathmandu Post, Nepal’s largest-selling English daily, was blunt in its criticism of the alliances. The elections “had been turned into a dance of undemocratic coalitions as political parties hanker to return to power, by all means, fair and foul,” it said. Another major daily, Republica, expressed ”surprise” that parties that are poles apart in political ideologies and policies have formed alliances. It could lead to a “democratic deficit,” it said. Others have called the alliances a “farce” for not offering voters real choices.

Since the 1990s, parties have formed alliances to form governments in Nepal. The 2017 election was the first time that major communist forces led by Oli and Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, formed a pre-poll alliance. The left alliance won the election and secured a near-two-thirds majority, although it secured just 10 percent more votes than the NC. It prompted a realization among parties of the importance of pre-poll alliances, especially in a winner-takes-all election.

There is little doubt that both alliance partners lack ideological similarity or even common policy goals. They have merely come together as a result of the political context.

The ruling coalition, which counts the Prachanda-led Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center (CPN-MC) among others as partners, came together to oust Oli from power after the latter dissolved parliament against the provisions of the constitution, twice. The desire to keep Oli out of power has primarily held this coalition together. Apprehensive at the prospect of fighting a coalition, the opposition, too, scrambled together to boost its electoral chances.

The alliance partners are strange bedfellows. For example, the Prachanda-led MC once called its current partner, the NC, a party of the bourgeoisie that had tried to decimate it during the decade-long insurgency. Interestingly, Deuba was the prime minister who put a price tag on Prachanda’s head during the peak of the Maoist insurgency.

Likewise, the UML is the nemesis of the Janata Samajbadi party (JSP), which advocates for Madhesi rights. Also, while the UML has a history of fighting against monarchy, its alliance partner now is the Hindu nationalist and royalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP).ADVERTISEMENT

Parties have openly said that the alliance is one of convenience to win more seats in the election. “We still have our ideological differences, but we agreed to forge a partnership to improve our electoral prospects,” JSP spokesman Manish Kumar Suman admitted. The JSP dropped out of the ruling coalition after a disagreement over seat allocation to join the opposition.

Opportunism is evident at an individual level too. Prabhu Sah, former minister for urban development, was allotted a ticket to fight as a candidate of the opposition alliance, only to do a volte-face at literally the eleventh hour. At the election office, he registered as an independent candidate after the ruling alliance assured him support.

Prachanda and Oli were comrades-in-arms during the last election in 2017. Together, they swept the federal elections and co-led a unified communist party, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). However, the lust for power and position led to an acrimonious split in the NCP. Now, they are bitter rivals, engaged in a game of one-upmanship against each other.

Yet it would be wrong to assume that alliance partners don’t share goals. The ruling alliance has weaved a narrative that the coalition is one of necessity and more than an attempt to win the election. Its leaders assert that the alliance is necessary to safeguard the constitution from changes by regressive forces. Prachanda said the alliance was essential after Oli led Nepal toward lawlessness and instability.

The ruling alliance’s agenda is to keep Oli and the UML out of power. Oli’s attempts to dissolve the parliament and isolate Prachanda (and Madhav Kumar Nepal, chairman of Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Socialist, a splinter of the UML) in the party led to the current ruling coalition. However, political expediency is keeping the ruling coalition together for the time being.

Interestingly, parties face challenges from within the alliance.

First, many long-serving party cadres who were denied party tickets have chosen to run as “rebel” candidates, while others have bolted to the opposition alliance. This is especially the case among NC leaders, who find voting for a communist party untenable. They have filed candidacies in constituencies where the alliance is fielding a communist candidate. The party has expelled such rebel candidates. There is similar discontent in the opposition alliance. Eighteen central committee members of the RPP wrote to their chair, expressing dissatisfaction with a partnership with the UML.

Therefore, the election result will partly depend upon which alliance manages to pacify disgruntled members and get them to support the alliance candidates.

Second, leaders are concerned that voters will cross party lines to vote for candidates from a different party. This was less of a worry in the 2017 election, where both alliance partners were cadre-based communist parties. However, the current alliances are not natural. NC leaders, such as Gagan Thapa, have said that some party members find it hard to vote for the “hammer and sickle” (the communist party symbol). Therefore, senior leaders of the ruling alliance are taking every opportunity to urge party members and voters to support alliance members. It remains to be seen if voters heed their request.

Third, will alliances last post-election? Even Deuba thinks the coalition is not meant for the long term. In a training session with alliance members, he stated that the alliance should continue for a few years beyond the elections because the threat from regressive forces (read the UML) continues. In the 2017 election, the communist parties won in a landslide and even formally merged their parties, yet it barely lasted three years. Therefore, it would not be surprising if a new coalition emerged after the election.ADVERTISEMENT

Analysts are concerned that the politics-driven, agenda-less, and ideologically fraught alliances effectively deny space for genuine elections where people can vote for the parties of their choice. Others warn that such “debased culture could ultimately lead to a serious crisis in democracy.”

These warnings are genuine but may be overblown. Voters cast two votes in the provincial and federal election: one for the candidates (for winner-takes-all, 165 seats) and the other for the party (for proportional seats, 110 seats). Thus, voters still have the opportunity to vote for their preferred parties.

Also, even when parties contested by themselves before the 2017 elections, it hardly resulted in stable politics or policies based on the ideological principles of the parties or candidates. In practice, there are nominal differences in how democratic or communist parties have run the country when in power. Barring a few, parties and political leaders have placed themselves over ideologies.

OP-EDs and Columns

It’s Election Season in Nepal Again

SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 10 October 2022. Please read the original article here.

Nepal is gearing up for federal and provincial elections to be held on November 20. This is the second election since the promulgation of the new constitution in 2015.

Institutions such as the legislature, judiciary and the President’s Office have been under criticism over the last few years for functioning against democratic norms. Free and fair elections are necessary to breathe new life into Nepal’s nascent democracy and the upcoming vote will be closely watched.

Even as the November elections represent continuity in some areas, they are also expected to see change too.

As in previous elections, in the upcoming one too political parties are forming pre-poll alliances. In the 2017 election, alliance formation had a major impact on the election result. The grand leftist coalition of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) [CPN-UML] and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) [CPN-MC] swept the election, winning 116 of 165 seats, while the main opposition party, the Nepali Congress (NC), won only 26 seats. This was despite the fact that the left alliance received only 10 percent more votes than the NC. It underscored the significance of alliances, especially in a winner-takes-all election.

Although the upcoming election will see alliances in the fray, in terms of composition the alliances are new. On one hand, there is the ruling coalition, which comprises the NC, CPN-MC, Communist Party of Nepal (United Socialist) [CPN-US] that splintered from the CPN-UML, the Terai-based Loktrantrik Samajwadi Party (LSP), and Rashtriya Janamorcha (RJ). On the other, the CPN-UML has partnered with the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Prajatrantra Party (RPP) and Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP), a disgruntled constituent of the ruling coalition.

Both coalitions offer no common ideological or policy foundation but are based on political opportunism. The ruling coalition is focused on keeping the CPN-UML, which emerged as the largest political party in the 2017 election, and its leader Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli at bay.

The number of independent and young professionals who have filed their nominations has risen. With mainstream political parties failing to deliver on their promises and public confidence in them falling, savvy newcomers have entered the fray. The success and popularity of Balendra Shah, the independent mayor of Kathmandu Metropolitan City, in the local election held in May has led to many young professionals throwing their hats in the ring. Rabi Lamichhane, a famed television presenter, has started a new National Independent Party (NIP), which has drawn together several independent candidates.

The chances of the independent candidates are not bright; the two main alliances are still the top dogs. But independent candidates will keep these alliances on their toes.ADVERTISEMENT

Gender parity remains a pipe dream. Less than 10 percent of the 2,494 candidates are women. Women politicians have complained that the leadership ignores women candidates. The nomination of women has further dwindled because of the electoral alliances. This time too, parliament will depend on the selection of women leaders under the proportional representation system (which fills 110 seats in the parliament) to ensure the constitutionally mandated one-third representation of women.

October 9 was the last date for filing nominations, and so the election campaign is yet to begin. Neither has any party published its manifesto yet. However, there are some common issues being raised by candidates. They are mostly related to socio-political and economic issues.

There has been a resurgence in the call to reinstate Nepal as a Hindu state. The RPP has consistently led these calls since Nepal became a secular state in 2007. The party became the fourth-largest party in the constituent assembly elections in 2008. However, its vote share has fallen in succeeding elections. In the last federal elections in 2017, the RPP received only 2 percent of the votes. The party aims to benefit from the increasing enthusiasm for a Hindu state. Its larger coalition partner, the CPN-UML, has not publicly called for the restoration of a Hindu state but Oli merged religion with nationalist sentiment and is eagerly courting the Hindu vote.

Another major issue is the Citizenship Bill. The politics behind the failure of President Bidhya Devi Bhandari to promulgate the bill has become a bigger issue than its contents. The proposed legislation discriminates against women, among others. Bhandari, who was a senior leader of the CPN-UML prior to becoming the president, went against the constitution and did not promulgate the citizenship bill. The ruling coalition is citing the president’s unconstitutional blocking of the bill and former Prime Minister Oli’s twin attempt to dissolve parliament to project itself as the upholder of Nepal’s democracy.

Although the presence of the U.S. and China in Nepal has been a subject of debate and discussion in the country, two U.S.-led initiatives, the $500-million Millennium Challenge Corporation and the State Partnership Program, which evoked much controversy, have not emerged as major election issues so far.

The upcoming elections offer reasons for both hope and despair.

The timely elections and youth participation bode well for electoral democracy in Nepal. Yet political leaders and parties remain the same, and offer little hope that they will be better stakeholders of democracy or progress after the elections.

Also, it is likely that no party will win an outright majority. Coalitions will form, but it would be foolhardy to assume that the electoral alliance will also be the ruling alliance.

The Explainer - NIPoRe Blog

Can Nepal Sustain Increasing Election Expenses?

SAMJHANA Karki

An election is a basis for democratic governance. The ways elections are conducted, including overall election financing, affect the overall performance of the resultant democracy and the related public institutions. However, the increasing election costs in Nepal is a matter of concern as it ultimately results in a higher level of corruption among the thus-elected lawmakers and officials. 

Nepal spent NPR five billion for the recently held second round of nationwide local elections on 13 May 2022. The amount thus spent for the election is equivalent to almost 14 percent of Sudhurpachim Province’s annual budget for the FY 2022/23. On a similar note, as the Government of Nepal (GoN) has announced to conduct the second round of federal and provincial elections scheduled on 20 Nov 2022, it is very likely that GoN will have to spend significant financial resources to finance the upcoming elections. As of now, the Election Commission (EC) has asked GoN to allocate an estimated budget of NPR 10 billion, equivalent to about one-third of Karnali Province’s annual budget for the FY 2022/23. This clearly shows that a country like Nepal, with very limited industries and revenue-generating activities, is forced to spend billions of rupees every five years, in an upward trend, to conduct elections at the federal, provincial and at the local levels. In addition, arranging financial resources for managing election-related security mechanisms adds additional burden on GoN. For example, the Ministry of Home Affairs has suggested to GoN that the ministry needs to recruit 120,000 Myadi Police personnels for managing security arrangements for the upcoming elections. As per the estimates, the total costs for these personnel will incur additional NPR six billion. Undoubtedly, these figures clearly show how Nepal’s elections are getting more costly with each election cycle passing.

Some past studies have shown that the actual election costs in Nepal remain quite higher. For Example, a study has found that the combined costs of GoN authorities, political parties and the candidates remained at NPR ​​131.63 billion for Nepal’s 2017 elections – held for all three levels of the government, with the candidates and their supporters spending NPR 96.91 billion and the GoN authorities spending NPR 34.72 billion. Though the election-related legal framework (the Election Offense and Punishment Act, 2017) mandates that all political parties and candidates participating in the election must submit their income and expenditure statements along with the sources of funds raised and used during their election campaign to the EC within two weeks of the election. Yet, given the whopping election-related costs and less reporting by the concerned candidates and the parties, it is certain that the political parties and candidates do not accurately maintain and report their costs of campaign financing to the EC.

On account of these figures, Mr. Bhojraj Pokharel – a former Chief Election Commissioner of Nepal – shared in one of NIPoRe’s नितिका कुरा: Policy Talks episodes that the rules and policies related to election-financing in Nepal are strong enough. However, due to poor monitoring mechanisms and the subsequent penalties, political parties and the candidates continue to neglect those terms and policies. He further stressed that the recruitment of a temporary police force in every election, can also be controlled using the available force and remaining from the voluntary participation of the youths from the local level. This can help GoN to minimize the extra coats by a large margin. Besides that, a strong civic and moral education on election and election-related affairs will definitely help make better use of the resources that are spent on elections each election cycle.

To conclude, increasing election costs in Nepal are worrying. The EC and other concerned stakeholders, including GoN, political parties and candidates should work to make future elections in Nepal affordable. As increase in election costs will have direct and indirect implications on the subsequent plans and policies, an intervention to keep these expenses within limits can definitely help all policy stakeholders in the country and beyond.