In with the new, out with the old

By-election wins of the non-establishment RSP is a wake-up call for Nepal’s mainstream parties

Swarnim Wagle of the Rastriya Swatantra Party addresses supporters at a victory rally in Damauli on Tuesday after being elected to the house from Tanahu-1. Photo: KRISHNA NEUPANE/RSS

The first indication that Nepal’s voters were turning against mainstream parties was in local elections in May last year. In Kathmandu, Dharan and Dhangadi hitherto unknown candidates defeated established parties.

But the big parties treated it as a blip, and carried on with business as usual, and in November’s federal and provincial elections, the independent RSP came out of nowhere to be the fourth largest party in Parliament.  

Still, the Nepali Congress (NC), UML and the Maoists refused to see the writing on the wall and kept playing politics without principles, making backroom power deals and not responding to the economic crisis and the people’s needs.

So, in this week’s by-elections in three districts, voters threw them out. Harvard-educated economist Swarnim Wagle, who defected from the NC to join the RSP, won hands-down against his UML and NC rivals in Tanahu. And in Chitwan, the RSP’s leader Rabi Lamichhane defeated his NC rival by a landslide. 

Still, there does not seem to be indications of any alarm bells going off in the mainstream parties. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoists said on Monday that there was a “danger of anarchy and emotion holding sway because of unregulated spread of social media”. He seemed to blame everyone but himself for the Maoist party being nowhere in the picture in this by-election in which it lent support to the NC.

The NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba seemed slightly more circumspect, and got over his candidates’ surprise defeats by admitting that voters had “stopped showing an interest in old parties”. The question now is what he is going to do about it.

The Wagle and Lamichhane wins have now given the RSP an additional seat in the House of Representatives, to take the total to 21. Wagle received 34,919 votes, much over NC candidate Govinda Bhattarai, who got 20,122 votes. 

Wagle seems to have carried over a chunk of the NC voter base to the RSP because of that party’s disenchantment with the party leadership of Sher Bahadur Deuba and his wife Arzoo for allying with the Maoists. Indeed, Ram Chandra Poudel— who vacated his parliamentary position after he was appointed the President— had received 25,361 votes in November, meaning that the NC received 5,000 fewer votes this time.

Interestingly, UML voters seem to have flocked towards Wagle after he shifted to the RSP. The party’s candidate came in second place with 19,981 votes in November, but UML candidate Khanal received over 11,000 less votes.

Over in Chitwan, Lamichhane got 54,170 votes, much higher than the NC’s Jit Narayan Shrestha who received 11,214. The fact that Lamichhane got nearly 5,000 more votes than in November shows that despite his citizenship scandals, he is even more popular because of public disenchantment with the NC-Maoist coalition. 

Rabi Lamichhane NT
Rastriya Swatantra Party chair Rabi Lamichhane receives his certification from the Chief Election Officer on Tuesday after winning the by-election from Chitwan-2. Photo: SADAN ADHIKARI/RSS

The turnout in all three districts has been almost as high as in November, which is contrary to the usual trend of by-elections having lower turnout. And it also shows that Nepali voters are finally thinking out of the box and abandoning inter-generational party allegiances.

Wagle’s victory, for instance, showed that voters gave a thumbs down to the NC now allowing a technocrat like Wagle a ticket, and believing that the economist could find a way for the country to extricate itself from the current economic crisis.

The personal attacks by NC leaders, including Gagan Thapa who used to be a friend and colleague of Swarnim Wagle, appears to have backfired on the party in Tanahu. Wagle, for his part, has refrained from direct attacks on any party or politician during this campaign – even though he had been publicly critical of the conjugal leadership of the Deubas in the NC. 

All the negative publicity regarding Lamichhane’s citizenship and passport, Kantipur exposing alleged corruption when he was briefly Home Minister in January, and a scandal involving an RSP MPs soliciting money from a tycoon do not appear to have affected Lamichhane’s support base.

In fact, Lamichhane’s voters appear to have been convinced by his argument that the mainstream parties who are neck-deep in corruption were trying to frame him on a relatively minor mistake involving his passport.

In Bara-2, where votes were still being counted till Tuesday afternoon, the JSP’s Upendra Yadav is leading with a margin of over 5,000 having received 18,096 votes so far. His closest challenger is Janamat’s Shiv Chandra Prasad Kushwaha. Like Lamichhane, Yadav is running for office for the second time, but unlike Lamichhane, Yadav lost the election in Saptari’s second constituency in November to Janamat chair CK Raut.

Yadav is banking on winning in Bara and is said to have persuaded Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal to hold off on completing his Cabinet nomination in hopes of nabbing the position of Deputy Prime Minister.

Even though the Chitwan and Tanahu wins for the RSP represent proof of a dramatic decline in support for mainstream parties, it remains to be seen if the RSP will be a true alternative party or behave just like the other established parties. After all, the RSP is a member of Prime Minister Dahal’s 10-party coalition and both Lamichhane and Wagle will be demanding their pound of flesh.

Dahal will be in a dilemma because he knows that the Deubas do not like Wagle, and Lamichhane will want an important portfolio among the five still vacant, since his earlier home ministry is already taken. For the moment it is unclear if the RSP will be back in Prime Minister Dahal’s government.

Shristi Karki


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