Depending on independents
KP Oli of the opposition UML was on the campaign trail in Syangja last week where he directly urged security officials to monitor what he claimed was voting restriction by the Nepali Congress (NC).
“You are not soldiers of the coalition,” Oli told them.
Five days later, the former prime minister who has had a double kidney transplant was at a Kathmandu nightclub at midnight, launching a campaign rap song as youngsters cheered.
The UML has bought targeted advertising on YouTube for Nepali users about its manifesto backing sanitary pad allowances for female students.
In the cities the UML is trying to woo the youth and women voters away from popular independent candidates, while in the districts it confronts the ruling coalition.
Nepal’s political aspirants from across and beyond party lines have boots-on-the-ground to draw voters to the polls before campaigning has to stop at midnight on 17 November.
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The performance of independent candidates in major cities in May’s local elections not only encouraged young Nepalis to stand for Sunday’s parliamentary and provincial polls, but also forced mainstream parties to hold on to their bases while appealing to younger and first-time voters.
Less than 9% out of the total candidates during the local election ran as independents in May. Of the independent candidates, 385 (3%) were elected to office. They included seven mayors from four major cities, six rural municipality chairs, as well as two deputy mayors and deputy chairs each.
Similarly, 136 independent candidates were elected ward chairs and 117 ward members, while 60 female ward members and 55 Dalit women ward members assumed office.
One of these local units is Bardibas municipality of Mahottari, which elected mayor Pralad Kumar Chhetri, deputy mayor Tara Devi, as well as four ward chiefs — all independents.
But some constituencies where independents were elected into office in May have not capitalised on the momentum.
Read also: Battle of ballots, Shristi Karki
In Okhaldhunga, where independent Gyanendra Rumdali was elected chair of the Manebhanjyang Rural Municipality, there are no independent candidates running for Parliament, and only one for the Provincial Assembly.
In Dolpa, where independents Karma Chhoibel Gurung and Pemba Wangchen Gurung were elected chair and vice chair of Dolpo Buddha Rural Municipality and Shey Phoksundo Rural Municipality — there is only one independent run for Parliament this time.
Manang, where independent Chhiring Gurung was elected chairperson of Manang Ngisyang Rural Municipality, has only one independent candidate in federal polls. In fact, Manang actually has more registered voters (6,779) than its population in the 2021 census (5,645) because of outmigration — a phenomenon in other mid-mountain districts as well.
The number of independent candidates has gone up in this election because so many are standing from cities. Of the 2,412 candidates contesting federal polls in direct ballots, 867 (36%) are independents — either first-time or rebel candidates refused tickets by their parties.
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In Syangja-1, incumbent MP Narayan Prasad Marasini of the UML is up against the NC’s Raju Thapa for the third time. While Marasini beat Thapa to Parliament during the 2017 polls, Thapa won the seat during the 2013 Constituent Assembly elections. The two will have a serious contender in Bodhraj Regmi from Rabi Lamichhane’s Independent Party along with eight other candidates, among which is 70-year old independent Lok Bahadur Damai.
In Syangja-2, there is intense competition between incumbent Padma Kumari Aryal of the UML and her main challenger Dhanraj Gurung of the coalition, but 36-year-old environmentalist Sagar Dhakal is also pulling crowds as an independent contestant.
But despite Dhakal proclaiming, “Political parties as we know them are dead”, this does not seem to be entirely the case for his and other constituencies across rural Nepal.
Indeed, voters in Syangja-1 constituency remained unaware of the independent candidate, confusing his name and election symbol with other independent candidates.
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Similarly, voters also remain wary of independent aspirants who have left mainstream parties in protest for being refused election tickets.
‘Running as an independent is a purely opportunistic move taken after he was denied a ticket from his party,’ commented a voter on Facebook in reference to Syangja’s Provincial Assembly candidate Durga Datta Bhushal, an independent who was with the UML.
Independent Daulath Kulung was elected chair of Bhojpur’s Salpasilichho Rural Municipality in May’s local election, narrowly defeating his NC rival. This time, three independents will run for Parliament while one more is running for the Provincial Assembly in the district.
Kulung sees his election win and post-election activities as different from elected officials like Balen Shah and Harka Sampang. “My agenda is different from that of elected leaders from cities like Kathmandu,” he tells Nepali Times over the phone. “Local elections are very different from federal polls. Just because some independents won in local elections doesn’t mean it will be easy for them across Nepal in this election.”
Read also: Election climate in Nepal, Shilshila Acharya
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.