In January Nepal’s Election Commission recommended a date for the local elections for April, but the top political leadership of the governing coalition dilly-dallied, citing Omicron and cost to buy time.
After severe criticism from civil society and the media, Prime Minister Deuba reluctantly agreed to hold local elections on 13 May as scheduled. Because of their electoral alliance, coalition parties fared well anyway.
Fast forward to July, and the leaders of the Nepali Congress and Maoists were having cold feet again about facing the electorate in November’s federal and provincial polls. There was lots of hemming-and hawing to the Election Commission’s recommended poll date of 18 November. Coalition leaders let off trial balloons saying they need more time to align candidates.
But coalition leaders finally agreed at a meeting on Wednesday at Baluwatar to hold the election on 20 November.
"The ruling alliance has requested the government to announce election dates as soon as possible,” Maoist leader Narayan Kaji Shrestha told us.
Deuba is said to have told coalition partners that election dates would be finalised during Thursday’s meeting of the Council of Ministers, or at the next Cabinet meeting.
Nepal’s law stipulates that election dates must be announced 120 days prior to polls, and there is only 110 days to go.
“That legal provision is not a joke,” warns former Chief Election Commissioner Nilkantha Uprety, “The 120-day timeframe is set in stone in order to allow parties to prepare properly for polls."
The reason Deuba had been twiddling this thumbs is the same as it was back in January: he has yet to receive a green signal from Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal and other coalition partners.
Despite finally agreeing to a date, just the vaccination about facing voters has exposed the governing coalition’s deep sense of insecurity about how Nepal’s public perceives them — especially after the reinstatement this week of tainted Finance Minister Janardan Sharma. The surprise win of independent candidates in mayoral races in May was also a jolt.
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Finance Minister Sharma’s reinstatement is directly related to having someone with access to state coffers in charge during campaigning. The government is also on a spree of transferring police officials and civil servants. Deuba could be waiting to transfer police chiefs and CDOs in as many as 50 districts before announcing election dates.
“Prime Minister Deuba called me yesterday to let me know that he would be announcing the election dates through the Council of Ministers,” Dahal told the press gathered at his residence on 27 July. “But I told him to wait for a few more days.”
One of the mysteries of Nepal’s coalition politics is why Deuba is so beholden to Dahal when all indications are that the Nepali Congress (NC) may actually do quite well by itself in November.
“It is clear that the Prime Minister could not announce the election dates — even if he wanted to — unless Pushpa Kamal Dahal signs off on the decision,” explains political analyst Puranjan Acharya. “Deuba might be prime minister, but for all intents and purposes it is Dahal who is sitting on his chair.”
Dahal has been trying to assuage Deuba by saying that he is happy for the Maoists to be the second biggest party.
The opposition UML has been trying to capitalise on these scandals, and also taking to the streets to stir up public support against corruption and inflation.
Dahal, meanwhile, had other reasons to want to hold off polls: the amendment to the 2014 Act on Commission on Investigation of Disappeared Persons, Truth and Reconciliation. Conflict survivors, human rights lawyers, activists, and civic groups are outraged that it grants immunity to perpetrators of war crimes.
Dahal wants to have the amendment passed while his party and NC are in charge, since Deuba was prime minister during the conflict years and is also answerable to atrocities committed by state security.
Despite dilly-dallying, the coalition has been laying the groundwork for elections by passing an amendment to the 2006 Citizenship Act that still discriminates against women, but is meant to appease the Tarai vote bank.
Chief Election Commissioner Dinesh Kumar Thapaliya says he is ready for any date in November, and expected the date to be fixed at Thursday’s Cabinet meeting.
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