All eyes on 2023

If it was clear that the UML convention last month was actually the party’s first election rally, it is even more evident during this week’s Nepali Congress (NC) jamboree in Kathmandu.

In his opening remarks to the NC’s 14th general convention, party leader and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba had urged delegates to bury differences and focus on the 2023 elections. 

His predecessor K P Oli had said the same thing two weeks ago in Chitwan, directing UML cadre to mobilise for a majority in local and federal polls.

At its own convention last week, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) positioned itself by pushing an anti-secular, monarchist electoral platform, and overhauled its leadership by electing Rajendra Lingden.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s CPN (Maoist Center), the third-largest party in Parliament and NC’s coalition partner, is set to hold its own national conference next month with full focus on elections.  

All four parties are using publicity surrounding their conventions to jump-start their party machinery for 2023. It is as if they have suddenly woken up from slumber, and party infighting that had sapped morale.

For the past three years, the UML and Maoist Centre were  too preoccupied with their internal power struggles to pay attention to what voters might think. The NC was not even playing opposition politics. And the Covid crisis gave everyone the excuse to do nothing. 

That is why the conventions have been a way to energise the parties, galvanise voters, make up for lost time so parties can throw campaigning into high gear during 2022.

“The conventions were mini elections,” admits the UML’s Krishna Pokhrel. “They were rehearsals for the real thing, and allowed the parties to streamline themselves for the election.” 

On Thursday, Gagan Thapa and Bishwa Prakash Sharma were elected general secretaries of Nepali Congress. This is proof that younger leaders at climbing up the party ladder. Neither are from Deuba’s camp in the party elections.

However, except for the RPP, the three main parties have retained their tried, tested and failed leadership. Five-time prime minister Deuba was re-elected party chair, as was Oli and most certainly Pushpa Kamal Dahal will also head the Maoist Centre.

“The conventions were an opportunity for the parties to rebrand themselves, but they have not seized it,” says political analyst Puranjan Acharya. 

Indeed, the country’s sinking economy, the Covid crisis and the urgent need for socio-economic reform were not even mentioned in the party conclaves which were obsessed with leadership contests and electoral alliances. 

Deuba’s NC presides over the coalition government made up of Dahal’s MC, Madhav Kumar Nepal’s newly-minted Unified Socialists, Upendra Yadav’s Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP), and the Rastriya Janamorcha. 

Dahal and Nepal need the NC’s grassroots base, and have warned Deuba not to break the coalition, which is on thin ice  mainly due to differences over the MCC which Parliament is due to ratify. While Deuba’s NC supports the $500 million American infrastructure project, Dahal and Nepal are opposed. The UML’s Oli strongly backed the MCC while he was in power, but now sees it as a useful tool to chip away at the governing coalition.

“The Nepali Congress has no plans to form an alliance with anyone in 2023,” says the party’s Gagan Thapa, “we are confident that we are going to sweep the polls with a majority by ourselves.”

Indeed, the NC has benefited from left disunity and wants to deploy its new young supporters to rally voters in 2023.

Meanwhile, the main priority in polls for Dahal and Nepal is to weaken the UML and emerge as the second party with an electoral alliance if possible — proving correct the theory that Communists everywhere see the parties immediately to their left as more of a threat than those on the right.