Old wine in old bottles

Nepal’s ageing career politicians, it is time for you to bow out gracefully. You have failed. Give someone newer a chance.


Ever since the Panchayat, Nepal has a history of ‘alternative’ candidates being elected to office as a protest vote against non-performing incumbents. But once in decision-making positions, most have proved less than capable. The superstructure of Nepali politics rests on weak foundations, and there is little one candidate can do, no matter how visionary.

The victory of Swarnim Wagle and Rabi Lamichhane in by-elections in Tanahu and Chitwan this week has been greeted with high expectations, but because of our past history, it is tempered with cautious optimism. Even so, the by-elections were a litmus test in which voters made their discontent with the established parties loud and clear. 

The results have reaffirmed that Nepalis are finally abandoning inter-generational party allegiances. The reason for that shift is in the behaviour of the main parties in which the Nepali Congress (NC) was asking people to vote for Maoist candidates, or vice versa. Nepalis are now starting to vote for individuals and not parties, especially old men in old parties.

Wagle and Lamichhane are both from privileged caste groups, so their win does not signify more inclusion. But it is an important shift in the public mood which the main parties will ignore at their own peril.

The trend actually started much earlier when non-politicians and relatively unknown candidates were elected in major urban centres in May local elections last year.

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Then, during the November federal election, the independent RSP came out of nowhere with more young political aspirants of varying professions to become the fourth largest party in Parliament. 

And it has now added one more parliamentarian to its numbers: Harvard-educated economist Wagle, who defected from the NC to join the RSP in March. Wagle won by a large margin in Tanahu-1, a traditional NC stronghold.

In Chitwan-1, Lamichhane defeated his NC rival by a landslide for the second time despite simmering scandals, proving just how disenchanted Nepali voters were with traditional parties. 

The big parties were punished for not seeing the writing on the wall and continuing to play politics as usual. Coalition candidates could only hold one of the three seats after JSP chair Upendra Yadav’s win in Bara-2. 

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NC chair Sher Bahadur Deuba admitted that voters had “stopped showing an interest in old parties”. UML and CPN- Unified Socialist leaders echoed that view. 

Only Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoists refused to take the by-election for what it was, blaming the messenger and saying there was a “danger of anarchy and emotion holding sway because of the unregulated spread of social media”. It was no surprise that he shifted the blame to everyone else but himself.

The RSP has maintained its support for the Dahal government but both Lamichhane and Wagle will demand their pound of flesh to fill five remaining Cabinet positions. Lamichhane wants back the Home Ministry which is now occupied by the Maoists who are unwilling to part with a powerful office they bargained hard to get.

Lamichhane is playing coy, saying the RSP did not plan to join the government, and may even withdraw support for the 10-party coalition. This could be a ploy to get the plum post back. The former tv anchor could also be angling for an alliance with K P Oli of the opposition UML.

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The RSP is less than a year old, and would do well not to rush into government again, focusing instead on being a strong opposition voice in Parliament which we are sorely lacking. Lamichhane can then use that time to build his nationwide party structure. 

The challenge for the mainstream parties until the next federal election will be to stop the slide and not alienate Nepal’s young voter base any more. The older leaders should also make way for younger ones within their own rank and file. Otherwise there may be more defections like Wagle’s from the NC.

The NC, UML and the Maoists need to reinvent themselves. Voters are sick of them. They want them to stop dithering and shuffling the deck. They have given the coalition one last chance to perform in the next five years. Nepal cannot be a proper democracy if political parties themselves continue to be autocratic, exclusionary and corrupt. There are populist reactionaries and extremists waiting on the wings.

Nepal’s ageing career politicians, it is time for you to bow out gracefully. You have failed. Give someone newer a chance.

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 Shristi Karki