26Jan2023

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Tag: Elections

OP-EDs and Columns

For More Women in Politics

– BINITA Nepali

The opinion piece originally appeared in the January 2023 Issue of New Business Age Magazine. Please read the original article here.

Nepal ranks first in South Asia and second in Asia in terms of the share of women representatives in the parliament. However, it ranks 123rd in the world in terms of the number of women holding ministerial posts. Women in Nepal have been assigned ministerial roles at general ministries only. It demonstrates the reality that, despite increased female political participation, women are not trusted to exercise authority and manage resources at the key ministries that have the potential to make major policy implications in the country.

In 2008, a mixed-model election system [First Past the Post (FPTP) and Proportional Representation (PR)] was introduced to encourage positive discrimination of women and other marginalised and unrepresented groups in the country. However, the political parties have exploited the PR system and turned it into the sole route for women to enter politics.

Political parties are reluctant to field women under the FPTP system. Therefore, to ensure constitutional adherence, women are brought onto the PR list. Only 9% the FPTP candidates in the 2022 federal and provincial elections were female. Most of the female candidates were fielded in fiercely competitive constituencies, with the less competitive seats going to the supposedly “strong” male leaders.

As per Article 84 of the Constitution of Nepal, at least one-third of the members elected from each political party to the federal parliament must be women. Therefore, at least 92 of the 275 members of the new federal parliament must be women, as there are currently only 19 women (32.2 percent), in the 59-member upper house. As only nine women were elected directly, the remaining 85 seats have been filled through proportional representation. It means there are just nine women in the top decision-making positions, as it has been found that the directly elected representatives – more than 95% of whom are men – hold greater sway over resources, authority, and influence than those who come via the PR system in Nepal’s parliament.

The country also fell short of meeting the target of having 50% women representatives in the local units. Only 14,407 (41.21%) out of the 34,953 elected in 753 local units were women. Of them, only 25 women have been elected to top or decision-making posts (13 mayors and 12 chairpersons). Moreover, women were sidelined in the guise of political coalitions during the recent local, provincial, and federal elections. Consequently, fewer women today hold leadership roles at all three tiers of government, owing to political parties’ aversion to promoting women to decision-making positions. To put it another way, Nepal missed out on the opportunities that more women in decision-making positions would bring.

First, more women in politics means a more inclusive democracy. A study shows more women in decision-making roles, with their inclusive and cooperative leadership styles, result in tangible gains for democracy. This entails better service delivery, stronger collaboration across racial and political boundaries, expanded social safety nets, and a more sustainable future.

Moreover, other research links women’s political participation to improved governance, transparency, and low levels of corruption. As women are often seen to be more trustworthy and honest, it is hoped that their increased participation in politics will reduce corruption. In 2011, Mexico replaced all of its male traffic cops with female cops to curb corruption, since women are seen as more trustworthy. New Zealand has the highest level of female representation (49.2%) of any parliament in the Asia and Pacific Region and the sixth highest in the world. Now wonder, the country ranks first out of 180 in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPI). Whereas, Nepal  ranks first in South Asia in having more women in national parliament (32.7 percent) and is 117th out of 180 in the CPI. Undoubtedly, Nepal needs more proactive women leaders who would guarantee more inclusive policies and responsible institutions that combat the pervasive corruption.

Second, more women legislators mean a more stable, inclusive, and vibrant economy. Researches show that gender equity has favourable economic gains for everyone and that the presence of women in politics corresponds with a wider economic impact.

India showed much improved socio-economic growth with greater gender-sensitive spending on programmes related to health, nutrition, and education when women were present in a decision making role. Likewise, women’s political leadership and women’s broader engagement in the economy are intertwined. Thus, if Nepal wants more women at work, it should prioritise raising the number of women in elected offices.

The government, which remains dominated by men as of now, repeatedly attempts to prohibit women from being involved in the economy. One recent example is the government’s effort to implement a law requiring women under the age of 40 to get permission from their family and local ward chair before travelling to the Middle East and Africa. In Nepal, 74% of women are involved in agriculture. Only 15.7% of agricultural work is performed by men, while the rest 84.3% is performed by women. However, they have no say in the earnings from farming and endure various types of discrimination (such as access to land, water, seeds, and training, among others). Yet, the government does not consider it essential to implement women-friendly farming policies, training, or materials.

Thus, women’s participation in two of the most important economic factors, remittances and agriculture, is minimal. This would be drastically different if more women were in positions of legislative power. More women in decision-making positions would fight against such discriminatory restrictions that limit women’s full participation in the economy and create a vicious loop: women don’t have money, they can’t win, therefore they are chosen through PR.

Third, there is significant evidence that women politicians are changing the way politics work by introducing policies in areas that aren’t usually talked about at the political table, like domestic violence, women’s reproductive health, and maternity leave, and by broadening perspectives on other policy areas. This has been seen in France, Sweden, South Africa, Rwanda, and Egypt, among others. Increased policymaking that prioritises welfare, healthcare, education, families, water and sanitation, women, and minorities is also linked to the number of elected women. Here, the New Zealand experience serves as the best example.

Women politicians not only propose such policies but also tirelessly work to put them into effect, as Margaret Thatcher rightly stated: “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman.” A study done in the US has found that congresswomen provide 9% more government programmes annually to their home districts than their male counterparts. And women are 10% more effective lawmakers and pass twice as many bills on average than men. The increasing instances of gender-based violence, rape, early child marriage, acid attacks, and girls’ trafficking are tearing the country apart. With Nepal’s political class becoming more and more apathetic, it is certain that greater representation of women in decision-making positions will increase efforts to put an end to these issues.

Nepal cannot afford to ignore women. It must ponder seriously what might be done to avoid losing out on these costly opportunities. As was done in Rwanda (which implemented 30% gender quotas in the parliament only in 2003 but ranks first in the world in terms of the proportion of women, 61.25%, in its national legislature due to rigorous implementation), one of the most important recommendations is to implement the legally mandated gender quota with adequate political finance regulations to support it, as the exorbitant cost of political elections is a significant barrier for women who are interested in running for elective office.

The patriarchal attitudes of Nepali society and local political parties that “women cannot win,”  which limit women’s electability and winnability in the elections must be challenged by raising awareness of the importance that women could offer to overall political governance and public service delivery. As women cannot be what they cannot see, elected women should get more media publicity to inspire other women to pursue leadership positions. Lastly, there should be more training and networks for women who want to run for government. For example, a cross-party and cross-country network for women politicians could be set up. 

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

Rise of young, independent candidates a worrying sign for aging political leaders

– SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Republica Daily on 19 November 2022. Please read the original article here.

Will the young guns ever replace the old guards?

The federal and provincial elections are just one day away. Mainstream political parties have projected confidence in the public but express concern at the visible surge of young and independent candidates. Some youth seem energized at the prospect of change. Yet, others remain skeptical that the young guns will ever replace the old guards.

While discussing with a group of more than a dozen students at King’s College, Buddhanagar (which offers foreign university-affiliated courses) in Kathmandu, I was astounded by their lack of interest in politics. It was not because they had no access to information. They chose ‘Routine of Nepal Banda’ as their primary source of information. They knew Balendra Shah but precisely little else. It could mean young people (urban youth from an economically privileged background) are disinterested in politics or the mainstream politics and political leaders do not appeal to them.

Polls in other countries too suggest that youth are more apathetic to politics than older voters. Even in neighboring India, state elections have seen a decline in youth voting since 2019.

Most youths who participated in the discussion at the King’s College wanted to go abroad and thus were hardly interested in politics or felt that ‘all leaders were the same’.

A nationally representative survey of 1080 individuals aged between 18 to 40 years conducted by the Nepal Institute for Policy Research (NIPoRe), and supported by Freidrich Ebert Stiftung-Nepal (FES-N), tests the perception.

A whopping 83 percent of young people feel that mainstream political leaders are worried about their petty personal interests, and more than half think they do not represent grassroots interests. However, it is not that the youths feel the leaders are incapable. Ironically, 77 percent still believe that the current political leadership can improve governance if they desired to do so. However, they conclude that the current leaders care less about delivering for the people.

Almost two-thirds of youths disagree that Nepal’s politics is heading in the right direction. Because youths make up a big chunk of the electorate, it should be a warning sign for the political leaders of Nepal.

This, especially, opens the path for young, independent candidates or fresh faces. Buoyed by the success of some young and independent candidates in the local elections, mainly Balendra Shah of Kathmandu, there are more such independent candidates in the upcoming provincial and federal elections. The survey shows that three out of four young voters are willing to vote for a ‘fresh face’ even if such candidates are unlikely to win. 

Another encouraging factor for the young candidates is that youth voters care less about party affiliation (only 10 percent said candidates’ party affiliation was necessary) and more about the candidates’ profile, ideology, and past performance. Therefore, the success of new and independent candidates will depend on their ability to reach out, engage and get the youth to the voting booth.

However, youths care about the same issues as the rest of the population. Infrastructure development, economic growth/jobs, education, health, and governance rounded off the top five spots in youth priority. Meanwhile, issues such as agriculture, social security and religious identity, which could be of more interest to older  generation and rural voters, mattered less for the youths. Hence, the youth population is looking more for opportunities than handouts.

Similarly, family and friends play a critical role in their political decisions. One-third of youths discuss politics at home, and more than two in five talk about politics with friends. One in ten youths decide whom to vote for based on the discussion with them. This opens up an opportunity for candidates to reach out to families via the youths. Balendra Shah employed this method effectively to win Kathmandu’s mayoral election, defying the expectations of many analysts.

In saying so, reaching out to young voters will take tireless effort. Less than half the youths read the news regularly (at least once a week). They rely primarily on Facebook for information but do not make a decision based on a candidate’s post on the platform. This could lead to a vicious cycle of information lapse and non-engagement of the youths. They are less likely to watch political speeches and join campaigns.

Youth’s reliance on social media also poses new risks of mis/disinformation campaigns. Half the youths will ‘ignore’ misinformation/hate speech because they fear retribution from candidates’ supporters if they correct or criticize the posts. The spread of short ‘viral’ clips of the candidates could have a more considerable influence on the youth’s decision, positively or negatively.

The survey offers hope for the country and young/independent candidates. Youths feel responsible for their political future. And there are also valid lessons for mainstream political parties to take away: If they can choose better and more capable candidates, this could help them perform better in future elections. And this way, young people’s approach to politics might also be healthy for Nepal’s future democracy. Meanwhile, young/independent candidates will likely put the mainstream political parties’ candidates on their toes, especially in urban areas.

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

The Election Manifestos of Nepal’s Parties Run Along Predictable Lines

– SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

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

On November 20 Nepal will vote in federal and provincial elections. Contesting the elections are two major coalitions, one led by the ruling Nepali Congress (NC) and the other by the main opposition, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist), or CPN-UML. In addition, the National Independent Party (NIP) and independent candidates are seeking to upend the “natural” political order.

Political and economic issues have dominated the political parties’ agenda per their manifestos. Parties have pledged to develop better infrastructure, accelerate economic growth to over 7 percent, create 250,000 jobs per year, and provide free services such as electricity and water. Similarly, some parties are seeking to change the political system. For example, the Pushpa Kamal Dahal, aka Prachanda-led Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), or CPN-MC, and the royalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) have promised a directly elected head of government, and the latter has pledged to abolish the country’s provinces and create a more unitary system of government.

The manifestos have lofty goals, and many have questioned if they are achievable. The performance of parties in power has been disappointing especially with regard to delivering on promises. Where parties have little to show in progress or achievements, they have resorted to making more promises or slinging mud at their opponents. They are trading barbs on foreign policy issues as well.

Former Prime Minister and CPN-UML chief Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli has touted that Nepal’s constitution was amended to include a disputed territory with India as part of Nepal during his tenure. He has presented himself as the only leader who can stand up to Indian pressure. Describing Prime Minister and NC chief Sher Bahadur Deuba as a weak leader, he has chided him for failing to publicly and timely raise the issue of the death of a Nepali child in the Darchula district when a rock from a blast on the Indian side hit him.

Parties are divided over China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a $500 million American grant. The NC, which steadfastly supported the MCC and led its ratification by parliament, states that Nepal would prefer grants rather than commercial loans in an apparent reference to the BRI. This reflects NC’s bias against China, according to some analysts. Meanwhile, other parties have made no such distinction.

The difference can also be seen in how to deal with India. Parties such as the CPN-MC and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Socialist (CPN-US) have vowed to regulate the border and review the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with India. Additionally, the CPN-MC has stated that it would raise the issue of the recruitment of Gorkha soldiers in India. The Gorkha recruitment has been a contentious issue since India launched the Agnipath scheme, whereby India would recruit soldiers on a short-term basis in contravention of the 1947 tripartite agreement between Nepal, India, and the United Kingdom. They also differ in their engagement with China. Some parties, such as the NC, have lumped minor territorial disputes with China in with major ones with India, while Nepal’s communist parties are generally mum on the country’s dispute with China.

Interestingly, the CPN-MC and the RPP have vowed to declare Nepal a Zone of Peace. King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah, who ruled Nepal from 1972 to 2001, championed the zone of peace proposal almost fifty years ago, but it was abandoned because of India’s opposition despite support from more than 100 countries. The RPP proposal is a revival of Birendra’s proposal but MC does not refer to the monarch’s initiative.

However, there is broader agreement among parties regarding the basic principles. All parties have stated that they are for an independent, non-aligned foreign policy based on the principles of the United Nations and the Panchasheel. Similarly, there is consensus among parties’ opposition to joining military alliances and commitment to not allowing Nepali territory to be used against neighboring countries.

Climate change is another common agenda. This is the first time climate change has been directly included in major parties’ manifestos. Nepal is among the most vulnerable countries to climate change. The recognition of the issue marks that the parties understand the severity of the case and the need for Nepal to engage global partners to mitigate its impacts.

Yet, the foreign policy agendas of Nepal’s parties lack imagination. The parties still seem to be hooked on a “balanced” foreign policy and hyphenating India-China and China-U.S. vis-à-vis Nepal. Nepal’s relations with India, China, and the U.S., the country’s three most important partners, are unique.

Nonetheless, parties are still attempting to equate Nepal-India relations with Nepal-China relations or to view Nepal’s engagement with China and the U.S. via a narrow strategic lens. The parties have also failed to appreciate the more significant trends in the regional and global order although the CPN-MC does mention a “new Cold War between China and the U.S.,” and the NC recognizes the growing nationalist tendencies globally.

Generally speaking, elections are mostly about domestic issues. In the words of James Carville, “it is the economy, stupid.” Yet, when domestic achievements are minimal, foreign policy plays a more prominent role. Additionally, the unique relations between Nepal and India have blurred some lines between domestic and foreign policy, as in India’s Agnipath scheme. Nepali parties have chosen a traditional and safe foreign policy with little surprises.

Based on the manifestos, a common minimum consensus is the least of the concerns for political parties in Nepal. The bigger challenge is whether the leaders can follow their proposals and principles or make ad hoc foreign policy decisions based on personal cost-benefit analysis.

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.

SAB Blog

SAB Blog – Nepal

Domestic Updates

Nepal held local elections on 13 May. It was the second such election after Nepal went into the federal governance structure. A few results were surprising as independent candidates won top mayoral positions in major cities like Kathmandu metropolitan city (the capital) and Dharan sub-metropolitan city. Nepali Congress topped the charts among the ruling coalition of five parties, and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) did well to come in third. The main opposition party, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist), came second though most expected the party to perform better. Nepal will also hold its federal elections later this year in November.

A Tara Air flight carrying 22 people crashed into a mountain at an altitude of about 14,500 feet. It was Nepal’s 19th plane crash in 10 years and Tara Air’s 10th fatal one during the same period. The European Union (EU) has barred Nepali airlines from European airspace since 2013 owing to poor safety records. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba inaugurated Nepal’s second international airport in Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha.

Regional Engagement

On the occasion of Buddha Jayanti (Buddha’s birth, nirvana, and death all were on the same date), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. The visit was Modi’s fifth to Nepal, and he had visited Hindu religious sites in his four previous visits. Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and Modi witnessed the exchange of six MOUs relating to the power and education sector. One was between India’s Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd and Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) to develop and implement the Arun IV hydropower project. Additionally, Nepal has signed agreements to sell up to 364 MW of electricity in the open market in India.

Nepal-India relation has been hot and cold during Modi’s reign. In 2014, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Nepal in 17 years and received adulation across the board. However, the Indian blockade of Nepal in 2015 and overlapping territorial claims have tested the relations. Nevertheless, the relationship has recently improved, especially in energy connectivity.

Deuba inaugurated Gautam Buddha International Airport earlier that day, but Modi chose to land on a custom-built helipad 16 kilometers away. Many analysts argue that Modi snubbed the airport because it was built by a Chinese contractor (though financed by the Asian Development Bank). Nepal has the daunting task of balancing Indian and Chinese engagement and interests in Nepal.

At the foreign secretary-level, the 14th meeting of the Nepal-China Diplomatic Consultation Mechanism took place. Both sides talked about cooperation for mutual benefits and the further promotion of bilateral ties. However, China expressed displeasure at the US Undersecretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, Uzra Zeya’s visit to Tibetan refugee camps in Kathmandu (more on this below).

Global Engagement

Zeya, the United States under secretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, visited two Tibetan refugee camps in Nepal. She is also the special coordinator for Tibetan issues. She went forward with visiting refugee camps despite Nepal’s reservations, though Nepal formally feigned ignorance of the visit. Nepal is home to over 13,000 Tibetan refugees and is a sensitive issue in Nepal-China relations. Nepal ascribes to the one-China policy, which states Tibet and Taiwan are integral parts of China, ever since diplomatic relations were established.

To assuage Chinese concerns, Nepal re-expressed its commitment to the One-China policy. However, the amalgamation of geopolitics and human rights principles makes Nepal’s handling of Tibetan refugees tricky. It has also been an arena for Sino-US competition in Nepal.