Nepal goes to the polls
Campaigning for his daughter Renu Dahal in Bharatpur last week, Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal warned that if she did not win, Nepal would plunge into crisis.
Over in Dadeldhura, Arzu Rana, the wife of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, told an election rally that she would withhold the budget for any municipality that did not vote in a Nepali Congress mayor.
The fact that two powerful members of the ruling coalition in Nepal have taken to threatening voters has been taken as an indication of their frustration with their inability to ensure that the alliance field common candidates for the 13 May local elections.
“If you vote for Renu Dahal, I will personally ensure that this coalition lasts for the next 20 years. If not, the country is headed to disaster,” Dahal said in Bharatpur on 5 May.
Renu Dahal is the coalition-backed candidate in Bharatpur, and her running mate is from the Nepali Congress (NC).
Chitwan is a NC stronghold, and many in the district directly suffered at the hands of the Maoists during the insurgency, including families who fled the conflict in the mountains. Now, families of those who were killed, disappeared, or injured in the war are being forced to vote for the party that perpetrated those crimes.
Prime Minister Deuba failed to convince his party’s mayoral candidate Jagannath Poudel to step down and support Renu Dahal. Poudel has been expelled from the party and is now running as an independent.
Dadeldhura also has a rebel mayoral candidate. The NC expelled Karna Bahadur Malla for refusing to make way for a coalition-backed common candidate and forming an alliance with the opposition UML.
Fear of political retribution seems to have influenced some NC candidates from running as independents against their own party.
Bimal Bahadur Karki in Pokhara withdrew his candidacy for mayor in support of the coalition’s CPN Unified Socialist candidate Dhanraj Acharya and his NC running mate Kopila Ranabhat.
Prime Minister Deuba’s attempts to appease his coalition partners has widened the rift within the NC between him and senior leaders like Shekhar Koirala, who had been against an electoral alliance, calling the expulsion of popular NC candidates as “political assassinations”.
Maoist leader Dahal throwing his entire political weight behind his daughter’s constituency in Bharatpur has also not sat well within his party.
In fact, the outcome of the mayoral races in Bharatpur, Pokhara and Dadeldhura will have far-reaching consequences for provincial and federal elections in November, and may even lead to the breakup of the coalition.
In Kathmandu, the UML’s Keshav Sthapit is standing for mayor again despite multiple allegations of sexual harassment during his previous tenure. Ironically, his running mate is 29-year old former Miss Newa Sunita Dangol.
The coalition’s common candidate in Kathmandu is Srijana Singh, wife of NC leader Prakash Man Singh who is himself the scion of Congress stalwart Ganesh Man Singh.
The Bibeksheel Sajha Party is hoping to repeat its strong showing in 2017 before the two alternative parties merged. Its candidate is lawyer Samikchya Baskota, but her chances could be affected by party chair Rabindra Mishra’s pro-monarchy and anti-federalism stance.
Trying to cash in on disillusioned Bibeksheel Sajha supporters from 2017 is 30-year old engineer and rapper Balen Shah who is standing as an independent and is expected to carry the youth swing vote. His campaign through social media has brought out young Nepalis into the streets in droves.
A total of 14,074,424 Nepalis registered to vote in local elections in 2017, and turnout was 73.8%. This time, there are 17,733,726 registered voters.
Even as Nepalis prepare to go to the polls, some 4 million Nepalis living and working abroad will not be allowed to cast absentee ballots despite a Supreme Court ruling in 2018.
“At a time when frustration towards politics is at an all time high regardless of where Nepalis are based, it is a pity that those of us abroad cannot channel our frustration through the ballot box,” wrote Tilu Sharma, a Nepali migrant worker in Qatar, in a recent instalment of Diaspora Diaries in Nepali Times. “ Our notes count, but our votes don’t.”
Friday’s turnout may also be affected by voters being required to travel to their home districts to cast their ballots. Many young voters who live in cities but got their citizenship certificates from the districts may be unwilling to make long journeys just to vote.
The future of Nepal’s local governments, and even the survival of the ruling coalition, is in the hands of voters as they head to polling booths across the country on Friday.
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.