House of cards
Right after Tihar, Nepalis will be preparing for yet another festival – federal and provincial elections. Five years after the 2017 polls, the dominant feature this time is that Nepalis are left to choose between two coalition clusters that are devoid of ideology and principle.
Despite some strong independent candidates, the election will most likely just reshuffle the deck of cards since superannuated, out-dated leaders have forged opportunistic electoral alliances to guarantee that none of them lose.
Less than 10% of election hopefuls are women. Indigenous communities and marginalised groups are more poorly represented, making this election even less inclusive than in 2017 and mocking Constitution provisions. The Proportional Representation (PR) system which was supposed to bring in under-represented communities to the fore, has party nominees like first lady Arzu Rana Deuba and former Maoist house speaker accused of rape Krishna Bahadur Mahara. Ek Nath Dhakal whose Paribar Party is supported by Korea’s Unification Church is top on the UML’s PR list.
“Our parliamentary process has been subverted and distorted,” said Surya Prasad Shrestha, former chief election commissioner at a discussion in Patan on Wednesday organised by the Tanka Prasad Acharya Memorial Foundation. “A bad election can lead to the collapse of a democratic system. Voting is an exercise of one’s conscience and it should not be curtailed by manipulation of those in power.”
In a democracy, an election should be a way of rewarding performance. It is supposed to weed out the inefficient and dishonest, and select the best managers to run the country for a given period.
Read also: Nepal’s parties forge new pre-poll alliances, Shristi Karki
In Nepal, except for a brief period after 1990, freedoms have been abused and the system distorted so that Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is contesting elections to possibly be prime minister for the sixth time. A front page reportage this week in Nepal’s most influential daily, Kantipur, pointed out that despite Deuba being prime minister for most of the past 25 years, his home district of Dadeldhura still ranks 50 out of 77 districts, its average life expectancy is much lower than the national average.
It is such neglect, apathy and lack of accountability that elections are designed to rectify. But the ruling class has rigged the system with electoral alliances and coalitions so that the same tried, tested and failed leaders get voted repeatedly.
The run-up to this election has been marked by make-up, break-up politics. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal has for the past decade engineered coalitions and alliances that best serve his purpose and keeping himself relevant. Analysts credit him for the decline of K P Oli of the UML, Madhav Kumar Nepal of the CPN-US and sidelining all rivals within his own party. Although they are allied, it is difficult to tell whether Dhaal is using Deuba, or vice versa in their electoral alliance – and what kind of secret leadership deal they have if the coalition wins.
Dahal is once again chummy with former comrade-in-arms turned nemesis Baburam Bhattarai with whom he has swapped Gorkha-2 constituency in exchange for Maoist support for his daughter Manushi contesting from Kathmandu-7.
Bhattarai had once publicly accused Dahal and Nepal of embezzling billions in the Budi Gandaki contract. Suddenly, he has backtracked saying he was wrong to accuse the pair without hard evidence. There are indeed no permanent friends or foes in politics.
Read also: 3-party dictatorship, Editorial
In this battle of coalitions, the Hindu right RPP has found partners in the opposition Unified Marxist–Leninist, while the Maoists are in electoral alliance with centre-right Nepali Congress. There is no space for ideology or reward for performance in Nepali politics.
“We need a credible election that reflects the will of the people. Democracy should be ‘by’ the people not ‘buy’ the people,” quipped advocate Dinesh Tripathi at Wednesday’s interaction. “This is a choice-less, agenda-less election. We have coalitions and alliances with no common program. One party’s chair is another party's candidate. This is anarchy, a farce, a fraud on the people, a hijacking of the public space.”
At least a dozen of Nepal’s richest men and businessmen are standing for direct elections. More than one-third of the mayors and municipality chairs elected in local elections in May were contractors, most of them have not even bothered to divest.
When election wins are not determined by track record and party pledges, Nepal’s governance and inclusive development will suffer for another five years. The only ray of hope is that independents make up 37% of candidates, and there are rebel candidates standing against their own party’s nominees.
“We have come a long way in terms of the democratic process and now have periodic elections, but we must reform the electoral system and integrate newer technologies, or we risk losing our hard-won democracy,” warned Nilkantha Upreti, the chief election commissioner who oversaw the 2013 Constituent Assembly polls.
Nepalis will mark Tihar next week with all-night card games, but a month from now they will be gambling in elections for a better future.
Read also: Swing votes, Shristi Karki