Nepal’s urban voters

Only two things can bring silence and empty streets to Kathmandu: Dasain and elections.

An estimated 1.5 million people travelled out of Kathmandu Valley during the Dasain festival in October, but unlike in previous polls they did not leave the city in such large numbers this November 20 to cast their ballots in their home districts. 

Stores, usually shuttered for elections, were open, and many inner city booths ready for early voters were nearly empty. It was clear that people had run out of reasons to halt their lives just to vote.

"The same candidates, the same talk, no action," summed up Bishnu Dawadi, who runs a retail store in Maitidevi. ”I did not have the motivation to close the shop and travel."

In the May elections, Dawadi’s family packed, shuttered the shop and took a bus to the adjacent Kavre district to vote. This time, they chose to stay back. 

The reason? Dawadi was not impressed by the candidates of Kavre-2: Gokul Baskota (UML), Shiva Prashad Humagain (NC), Dinesh Humagain (RSP), and Yashu Ale Magar (RPP). 

UML's Baskota and NC's Humagain were in a neck to neck race that Baskota won, despite being allegedly involved in a corruption scandal as Communications Minister in the K P Oli government two years ago.

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They had been rivals in the 2017 elections to the federal Parliament as well. 

Juddha Rai, a Morang-3 resident doing business in Bhaktapur, also did not feel it was worth his while to undertake the day-long ride home to vote.

"I did not like the candidates the first time they ran," said Rai. “I do not like them now. Why stop my business and spend my savings to cast a ballot that will not make a difference?” 

Gokarna Poudel, a vegetable vendor in Kathmandu, also did not vote in this election. Originally from Sindhupalchok-2 he boycotted the polls, like many from his constituency who are in Kathmandu.

He had been disappointed by UML MP Sher Bahadur Tamang's performance after being elected to the federal Parliament in 2017. Tamang was a strong backer for legalising marijuana, and although he was not tainted as his rival Gokul Basmkota as minister, he had to resign over unproven allegations of wrongdoing.  Baskota defeated Tamang in a close race.

"I am loyal to UML, but I can't vote for someone who does nothing for my people," said Poudel, "So, I decided not to bother.”

Read more: The Nepali people have spoken, Sonia Awale

To be sure, not everyone was as frustrated enough with politics not to vote, or did end up voting for new or independent candidates. Police estimated that more than half-a-million people left Kathmandu during the election weekend, much fewer than last time.

Many took advantage of buses that political parties from various districts had organised to take their supporters to the districts to vote. There were some who took the free ride home, and still did not vote.

Bhanu Prasad Dhakal is originally from Gulmi-2 and owns a stationery shop in Kathmandu. Although he is a UML supporter and the candidate Gokarna Bista from Gulmi did a decent job as Labour Minister in the Oli government,  Dhakal did not feel it was worth the trouble to travel to Gulmi just to vote. Bista was re-elected.

The poor reputation and perceived underperformance of ‘recycled’ candidates from the established parties was the main reason for the 61% turnout in the federal election — the lowest since 1992.

Although the attraction of the RSP and other independent candidates did bring a flicker of interest in polls, it was mostly confined to urban residents.

Rupa Manandhar lives in Kathmandu-4 and used the election holiday to visit her parents instead of voting. In the May local election, she had ordered takeout to feed her children and gone early to vote for independent candidate Suman Sayami.

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This time, Manandhar said: "None of the candidates  represented us well. They made unrealistic promises we cannot  even dream of."

The local election in May had candidates fighting for 34,953 seats in Kathmandu-4. Neighbours and relatives were in the running and were more in tune with the people's needs. This time, there was less inclination to vote.  

"People keep asking me why I did not vote," says Karna Tamang, who is registered in Bhojpur-2 amd lives in Kathmandu. "So, I dyed my left thumb to pretend I did.”

Tamang, a tempo driver, was also dissatisfied with the candidates standing in his home constituency: the choice was between Sher Dhan Rai of the UML and the Maoist Shudan Kiranti who was backed by the coalition. For him, both were uninspiring. 

Despite an innovative voter education campaign by the Election Commission this time, it did not convince  those who had decided not to cast their ballots. TikTok clips urging voters to cast their ballots were largely wasted because they reached Nepalis with no voter IDs, or who did not believe the elections would change anything.  

According to Election Commission data, the total ballots cast this time was 10% down from May. It had expected at least 70% turnout. This decline is worrying since the number of eligible voters had actually increased by 254,847 in the last seven months.

As long as parties make ephemeral promises, there is no ideological difference between parties, and the same discredited candidates stand, voters will not be inspired. The vote ultimately comes down to the candidate's integrity and promise of performance. 

The lesson from this election is that parties choosing tried, tested and failed candidates are undermining Nepal’s hard-won democracy.

Read more: Lower than usual turnout in Nepal polls, Sonia Awale

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