Despite lack of conviction that local elections will improve lives, people cross
swollen rivers to vote
This was Nepal’s first-ever election during the monsoon, and the sight of hundreds of people wading across flooded rivers or taking boats to the voting booths on Wednesday was a sign of their eagerness to cast ballots, even though they didn’t expect much from it.
Here in the eastern-most district of the Tarai, which the Madhes-based parties want as part of Province 2, people were visibly impatient to get out and vote. After all, three other provinces voted a month ago and many here felt it was unnecessary to have deferred polling.
Mohamad Hafiz, 65, of Shivasatasi Municipality was among the 700 or so villagers who pulled up their lungi and crossed the Kankai to vote on the other side. He said he has been crossing the river to vote in elections for the last 40 years.
“Every time candidates come to our village begging for votes, and promising to build a bridge over the Kankai. We voted for them every time, but the bridge never got built,” Hafiz says while standing in line at the voting centre at Pashupati Primary School. Others within earshot nod in agreement.
This year too, the political party candidates for mayor of the new municipality promised a bridge. Because this is the first local election in 15 years and the first under the new constitution that will give the municipality greater decision-making powers, Hafiz says he is hopeful that his vote may now make a difference.
Over in Damak, 30-year-old tea picker Bimala Magar is waiting in the female voting queue. She has a different kind of problem: not being paid by the tea estate that employs her. “Our wages have stayed the same for eight years, and we don’t even get that on time,” says the mother of two.
It took Magar two more hours in the sweltering sun, and later under pouring rain, to stamp her ballot. Afterwards, she did not sound very hopeful that her vote would make a difference.
The Ward Committee candidates from the NC, UML and Maoists all say they talked to the tea estate management during the campaign, who assured them that pickers’ families will get free education for their children, clothing and food allowances, and bicycles for college-going daughters.
Magar says she would be happy even if just one or two of these promises were kept, but is not too hopeful: “Politics is for a certain class of people, our lives never change. I often wonder who benefits from my vote: it is definitely not people like us.”
Paradoxically, even though there isn’t a lot of confidence among voters that local elections will improve their lives, they have come out overwhelmingly to voting booths. Unlike in previous years, there wasn’t much violence during campaigning in a district that has produced many leaders of national stature like Krishna Prasad Sitaula of the NC and KP Oli of the UML. The presence here of the RJPN is negligible. Police detained anti-election activists from the CK Raut and Netra Bikram Chand groups who wanted to disrupt elections. The split in the Limbuwan has also lessened their impact on voting in the eastern mountains.
“The enthusiasm for elections and the high turnout now increases the responsibility of elected local leaders to meet their campaign promises for development,” says Gopal Acharya of the Jhapa District Election Office.
Sarbatlal Rajbanshi is Chief of the Gauriganj Campus and one of few from the aboriginal community in that position. He says Nepal would have moved forward much faster politically and economically if narrow-minded politicians had not created problems between Madhesi and indigenous people in the Tarai.
Rajbanshi told us: “We used to have to go to Kathmandu to beg to have a bridge built: that was absurd. This election brings hope.”
A carnival like election
Bachu BK in Dadeldhura
Here in Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s home district, people were unsure whether they would really get to vote on 28 June. Deuba had twice postponed polls during his previous tenures, and he had also deferred polls announced by his predecessor. So when it finally happened this week, people looked euphoric. Polling on Wednesday wore a festive look.
Bir Bahadur Deuba, 76, shaved his beard and wore his best daura-suruwal as he walked to the polling booth. “Never have I missed an election,” he said. “I am happy to vote again.”
The septuagenarian who introduced himself as the PM’s distant uncle added: “Sher Bahadur always wants to do something good, but ends up doing the wrong thing. I trusted him when he said he wanted to hold elections, but I was afraid he might end up calling it off once again.”
The uncertainty was not just confined to Dadeldhura, but was felt throughout Province 5. Rumours swirled did a few days ago that their prime minister in Kathmandu might suddenly postpone polls, fearing a poor showing by his party due to internal disputes in the district. But the PM spent a week in Dadeldhura, solving intra-party wrangles and instilling confidence in people that elections would happen.
Voters walked miles to reach polling stations, braving monsoon rains and postponing rice planting. “I can plant paddy later, but I can’t vote whenever I want,” said Ram Samajh Chaudhary, who cast his vote in Kailali in the plains.
In Tikapur of Kailali, Tharu protesters in 2015 lynched eight policemen and shot one child dead during a violent protest against the ruling parties’ decision to graft the district onto Province 7. Tharus wanted the two Far-western plains districts of Kailali and Kanchanpur in a separate province. The Tikapur tragedy poisoned relations between Tharus and hill settlers, but now people of both communities have come together to elect local councillors.
One of the factors that helped reconciliation between the two communities was the space given to Tharus by political parties dominated by hill settlers. As many as 28 Tharu candidates were fielded by various parties for mayor/village chief and deputy mayor/village deputy In Kailali and Kanchanpur, where they constitute roughly 40% of the population. Tharu voters therefore turned out in huge numbers.
As in the first phase, there were a significant number of Dalit and women candidates. In the remote Far-western hills of Baitadi, where discrimination against Dalits is entrenched, Naresh BK, a mayoral candidate for the UML, said: “Finally, so-called high-caste people are seeing us Dalits as people.”
Dipak Gyawali in Rupandehi
The Marchwar region of Rupandehi district is adjacent to the Buddha’s birthplace of Lumbini, but these lawless plains near the Indian border saw much bloodshed during the conflict.
Even after the war, the region has frequently seen violence.
CK Raut, the Madhesi figure espousing separatism, often comes here to train cadre. The Madhes-based RJPN sees Rupandehi as its main stronghold after Province 2. Last December, when the UML led its Butwal-centric agitation against the government’s proposal to split Province 5 to appease the RJPN, Madhesi leaders met here to chalk out a strategy for retaliation.
The RJPN appealed to people here to boycott Wednesday’s local polls, yet voters turned out in large numbers anyway to elect local representatives despite threats of violence. The Marchwar saw a record 80% turnout, much higher than the national average of 70%. The booths opened at 5am, but people had begun lining up from 4am, in spite of the darkness and rain.
Sapina Khatun, 28, was voting for the first time in her life after finally getting her citizenship last year after a long struggle. “The Indians easily bribe their way through to get citizenship certificates, but Nepalis and women like me have to fight for it,” she said through her veil. “I hope our suffering will end once we have elected representatives.”
Locals here were so fed up with political instability and lack of development that they defied the RJPN’s boycott call, and so did some party cadre. As many as 171 RJPN members stood as independent candidates.
Thabang village in the mountains of Rolpa is also in Province 5, and is a stronghold of the breakaway Maoist faction led by Netra Bikram Chand (‘Biplav’). It is the group that tried to disrupt elections by setting off explosions. But the people of Thabang, who heeded Biplav and boycotted the CA elections in 2013, this time came out in large numbers to vote.
Like RJPN cadres in the Marchwar, Biplav’s cadres also stood as independent candidates. Interestingly, they formed an electoral alliance with the Nepali Congress – a party Biplav views as his ultimate class enemy.
But both in Thabang in the mountains and Marchwar in the plains of Province 5, people are angry with Kathmandu for robbing them of their right to practice democracy and good governance at the grassroots. The polls gave them a chance to vent their ire via the ballot paper.
“There is only one takeaway from these elections, and this is that people just want political stability and economic prosperity,” says Mahendra Yadav, a local leader of the Federal Socialist Forum Nepal (FSFN).
In Kotahimai village council of Rupandehi, Bal Kishun Tiwari was always at the forefront of the RJPN agitation. He followed every order from party leaders, but he disobeyed the boycott call, and even contested the polls independently for the village council chair. “People want elections, and I cannot go against them,” he told us.
Many RJPN cadres who contested elections without their party’s support are sure to win in Province 5, and even beyond. Ironically, even if they win, their party will be the biggest loser. After boycotting Phase One in Provinces 3, 4 and 6 and Phase Two in Provinces 1, 5 and 7, the RJPN is now restricted to Province 2, where Phase Three is scheduled for 18 September, though it is still not certain if the RJPN will participate even then.
The enthusiasm with which people turned out to vote in the 11 Tarai districts in Phase Two is a clear sign that RJPN cadre cannot go against the people’s support for elections. It is still to be seen if the main party leaders will understand which way the wind is blowing.
Polling together, Shreejana Shrestha
The Madhes saga, Navin Jha
Polling in the rain
Act locally, Editorial