Battle of ballots


“For too long we have been taken for a ride by politicians. It is time we took politicians for a ride.”

Campaigners on speakers to the accompaniment of traditional instruments made rounds late afternoon this week in Kathmandu.

As the countdown begins to Nepal’s parliamentary and provincial elections, their top political leaders and other aspirants appear to be more excited about the polls than their voters.

On 20 November many of the country’s 17,988,570 registered voters will head to the polls to elect 275 members to the House of Representatives and 550 members to Nepal’s 7 provincial assemblies. Of them, 165 Members of Parliament will be voted in directly, while the remaining will be selected from the list of Proportional Representation (PR) candidates.

Similarly, 330 provincial seats will be filled through direct voting while the remaining seats will go to PR candidates.

There are 2,412 candidates, of whom only 225 are women contesting the parliamentary election under the first past the post (FPTP) election system, and 867 of them have registered independently. Similarly 3,224 FPTP candidates, of which 280 are women, will contest provincial elections.

Of the total registered voters, 50.8% are male, while 49.2% are female. A little more than a third of voters are between 26-40, making up the largest age group in the electorate. Nearly 20% of all voters are concentrated in Bagmati Province, while Karnali has the fewest voters at 5.6%.

On Election Day, Nepalis will cast votes via four ballot papers, two each for the FPTP and PR elections of Parliament and provinces.

During local elections in May, Nepal’s five-party ruling coalition extended the alliance it formed to oust former Prime Minister K P Oli into an electoral partnership. It paid off: Prime Minister Sher Bahadur’s Nepali Congress (NC) won big, it allowed Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Maoist Centre to gain a stronger foothold, and gave the new Unified Socialists the relevance it needed.

But not everyone fared as well. Madhes-based parties like Upendra Yadav’s JSP split from ex-Maoist Baburam Bhattarai after a less-than-stellar showing in the polls, which brought Dahal and former Bhattarai back together. Mahanta Thakur’s LSP also underperformed.

Rabindra Mishra stepped down from the progressive Bibeksheel Sajha party after dismal election results to join the royal-right RPP which is more in line with his views on monarchy and federalism. The JSP and LSP also switched allegiances between the coalition government and the opposition at the last moment, and the RPP has allied with the UML.

In the run up to 20 November, there was some doubt about whether the governing coalition would hold. Analysts and some top NC leaders felt the party could win on its own, and did not need to team up with the Maoists.

One of the great mysteries of these polls is why Deuba clings on to the Maoists to the detriment of his own party. One theory: it is geopolitics. Beijing is supposedly bent on reuniting the Maoists and UML, while the US and India are trying their best to prevent a monolithic Communist party.

Whatever the reason, this has meant we have strange bedfellows on the hustings. Deuba and Dahal are on the campaign trail together. Deuba has ostracised colleagues who refused to support coalition candidates and are contesting as independents. The UML’s Oli has also ousted party rivals.

In the days leading up to the election, each of Nepal’s political parties and candidates have unveiled election manifestos, outlining their stance on the economy, employment, education and healthcare, infrastructure, the environment, social security, election reform.

But as it stands, the election has been defined by unusual, fickle political alliances more than ideology and real commitments to tackle urgent environment, economic and employment crises.

The Big Boys

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress (NC) is contesting  from the sole constituency of his home district Dadeldhura, from where he has been elected to office six times. Deuba will face his former secretary Karna Bahadur Malla of the rebel Nepali Congress (BP) who is backed by the opposition UML. He also faces four independent candidates, notable among them 31-year old engineer Sagar Dhakal.

NC Central Committee member and the Prime Minister’s wife Arzu Rana Deuba is on the list of PR candidates, unlike in 2017 when she contested the election directly from Kailali’s fifth constituency. Rana Deuba lost the election to the UML’s Narad Muni Rana after being branded a ‘tourist candidate’.

Dilli Raj Pant, member of the provincial assembly of Sudurpaschim Province 5(B), is on the party’s parliamentary ticket this time, the Prime Minister’s nephew Prakash Deuba seeks Pant’s seat in the provincial assembly.

Opposition leader and former Prime Minister K P Oli of the UML is running in Jhapa-5, where there are a total of 25 candidates in the fray, including Khagendra Adhikari of the NC.

The Unified Socialist’s Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal are vying to represent Rautahat-1 and Ilam-1 respectively. Nepal currently represents Kathmandu-2 in parliament, while Khanal is the incumbent of Ilam-1 and will be challenged by Mahesh Basnet, who is currently an MP from Bhaktapur.

JSP leader Upendra Yadav is contesting from Saptari-2, while LSP chair Mahanta Thakur will run from Mahottari-3.

Unholy alliances

Maoist Centre chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal will stand from Gorkha-2, which is currently represented by Baburam Bhattarai in Parliament. Dahal had previously contested from Kathmandu and Rolpa in 2008, Kathmandu and Siraha in 2013, and Chitwan in 2017. Bhattarai relinquished his seat for Dahal, who needed a sure win ostensibly in return for Maoist support for his daughter in Kathmandu and, some say, assurances of being nominated President.

In Jajarkot, old political rivals Shakti Basnet of the Maoists and Rajeev Bikram Shah of the NC have become allies this election cycle, with Basnet running for parliament while Shah contests provincial polls to become Chief Minister. The two ran against each other in Jajarkot in 2017 and Shah won.

Chitwan-3 is currently represented by Dahal in Parliament, but the coalition ticket has gone to physician Bhojraj Adhikari of the Federal Hospital Bharatpur. His opponent will be Dinesh Koirala, who defied the NC and is standing as an independent candidate. Koirala is among 74 NC members against whom the party has taken action for failing to support coalition candidates. Koirala will be supported by the UML, which withdrew its own candidate.

In Makwanpur, Kamal Thapa of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N) is not just allying with the UML, but is actually contesting the election under the UML’s ‘Sun’ election banner amid protests from the local chapter of the party. Thapa will be challenged by coalition candidate Mahalaxmi Upadhyaya of the NC as well as 14 other candidates.

Some of Nepal’s most high-profile candidates are vying for parliamentary positions from Kathmandu’s 10 consituencies. Rabindra Mishra, who exited Bibeksheel Sajha Party to join the Rajendra Lingden’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) as vice-president is standing in Kathmandu-1 on a royal-right platform. He will be up against the NC’s Prakash Man Singh. Maoist leader Onsari Gharti Magar will contest from Kathmandu-2.

Younger and independent

In Kathmandu-4, ageing youth leader Gagan Thapa of the NC is up against Rajan Bhattarai of the UML, who lost the constituency in 2017. This is Thapa’s stronghold where he won during the 2013 and the 2017 elections.

Ranju Darshana, who lost the bid for Kathmandu mayor by a smaller-than-expected margin in 2017, is running as an independent from Kathmandu-5, where she will be up against UML senior Vice-president Ishwar Pokhrel and the NC’s Pradip Poudel.

Manushi Yami Bhattarai, daughter of Baburam Bhattarai and Hisila Yami, is contesting from Kathmandu-7. Suman Sayami, who finished fourth in the Kathmandu mayoral race in May, will contest the federal election from Kathmandu-8. Milan Pandey of the Sajha Party is standing for the second time from Kathmandu-9 constituency.

Elsewhere, former tv personality and founder of the Rastriya Swatantra Party Rabi Lamichhane will face off in Chitwan-2 against State Minister for Health and Population Umesh Shrestha, a coalition candidate and close ally of PM Deuba. Noted actress Rekha Thapa, who has long been part of the RPP, will be competing against Tourism Minister Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal in Morang-3 constituency.

Politics as usual

It is the women, Dalit, indigenous communities and other minorities across party lines who are the biggest casualties as the two coalitions circumvent constitutional quotas for them.

In a mature democracy, coalitions are formed after election results are out. But Nepal’s pre-poll cartels (called “political plotting” by one analyst) have rigged the votes so that it is impossible for the Big Boys to lose .

In Sindhuli-1, NC candidate Shyam Kumar Ghimire and the UML’s Pradeep Katuwal who went head to head in the provincial election in 2017 will face off in parliamentary elections.

Across the country, conflict victims like Sushila Chaudhary, who lost her brother and sister to the Nepal Army in the war, and Maina Karki, whose husband was killed by the Maoists, are some of the first conflict victims to be on the PR list from the Maoists in the NC respectively.

As coalition candidates, victims and survivors from both the government and rebel sides during the insurgency given tickets by their parties will essentially be allied because of the NC and Maoist coalition—  forced to fight on the same side in the battle of the ballots just so their party bosses get to be prime ministers again.

The 2022 elections will be remembered for bringing together parties with diametrically opposed ideologies just to ensure that the kakistocracy remains in power. Candidates have been forced by party HQ to ally with people that they ran against in 2017.

After Nepalis shunned the established parties and voted for independent candidates during the May local elections, more independent aspirants have stepped up, hoping to cash in on voter disillusionment with the establishment.

New political aspirants and voters are trying to build critical mass for radical change, how much they can loosen the stranglehold of the established parties and their two coalition clusters this time we will only know when the results are out.

Nepalis are also urging other Nepalis, via voter collectives like #NoNotAgain, to replace  superannuated politicians with competent new leadership. But it remains to be seen if Nepalis will indeed say #NoNotAgain in the voting booths.

Shristi Karki


Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.