Old is still gold in Nepali politics

By-election results in Ilam and Bajhang show establishment parties are still the voter’s choice

UML's Suhang Nembang addresses supporters after winning the by-election from Ilam-2 on 30 April. Photo: RAM KUMAR LIMBU/RSS

The two by-elections in Ilam-2 and Bajhang were in effect public opinion polls on the people’s political preferences. Of the people who cast their ballots in the two districts, 40% voted for the UML, while over 30% voted for the Nepali Congress (NC).

The Maoist-Centre was nowhere in the picture. The RSP's bubble seems to have burst. The Hindu monarchist RPP was wiped out.

If this was a mini-referendum, the results were clear: the legacy parties are still strong, voters rejected both identity politics as well as a return to monarchy and a Hindu state. But it is the sad fate of the Maoists in Bajhang, whose leader is the current Prime Minister, that is most remarkable.

Voter turnout was almost 60% in Ilam and 49% in Bajhang, probably more a reflection of anti-establishment absentee voters than a lack of interest in the elections. Traditional vote banks, electoral alliances and ethnic-caste identity played a part.

In Ilam-2, UML candidate Suhang Nembang won the seat held by his father Subhas Chandra Nembang, who died last September. He received 27,772 votes, while Dambar Bahadur Khadka of the NC got 21, 942.

Independent candidate Dakendra Singh Limbu, who ran an identity-based campaign representing Ilam’s indigenous communities, came third with 11,457 votes. The fact that a candidate with no party affiliation championing the Kirat cause got so many votes shows identity politics is a potent force in Kosi Province.

The RSP, which branded itself as an anti-legacy party, fell short of its own expectations. Candidate Milan Limbu received only 5,050 votes to finish fourth in Ilam-2. RSP’s popularity seems to be focused on a few of its personalities, but scandals involving Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane undermined support.

Both by-elections showed negligible support for a return to Hindu monarchy. The RPP’s Laxmi Gurung received just 404 votes in Ilam-2, and the party’s candidate in Bajhang got only 242.

In the Bajhang 1(A) provincial assembly by-election, UML candidate Daman Bahadur Bhandari defeated his closest rival Abhishek Bahadur Singh of the NC by less than 300 votes. Abhishek Bahadur Singh is the son of Prithvi Bahadur Singh, Sudurpaschim Province’s Home Minister who died in a car accident last June.

Bhandari received 11,613 votes, while Singh obtained 11,346. Meanwhile, Maoist Centre candidate Janak Bahadur Budha got just 3,831 votes and Dil Bahadur Singh of the Unified Socialist got 2,514 votes.

Nepal by-election 2024

Bhandari’s win has increased the number of UML MPs in the Sudurpaschim parliament by one but has not made a fundamental difference in the provincial government, where the NC still has a majority.

In early March, the Maoist Centre broke from its alliance with the NC to once again join hands with the UML in a new coalition. Krishna Pokharel, a professor of political science, says that the new coalition was crucial to the election.

“Nepali Congress lost a seat in Bajhang that it had won by a margin of more than 3,000 votes in 2022,” notes Pokharel, “This makes it clear that the NC’s win in 2022 was due to its alliance with the Maoists and the Unified Socialists, and that it is otherwise not the preferred party in the constituency.”

In Ilam, Khadka of the NC had previously also run against Subhas Nembang during the 2022 elections in alliance with the Maoists and other parties. He lost that time by just 114 votes. This time, since the NC contested the election alone, the difference of votes was more than five thousand.

Alliance with the Maoists has turned out to be crucial to both NC and UML during the election. “The UML must understand that the performance of the party during the election depends upon whether or not it is part of a coalition,” says Pokharel.

There is soul searching within the NC about the line taken by party dissidents including Gagan Thapa to go it alone. The Maoists still command the swing votes.

Political scientist Krishna Khanal says that the wins of the UML in both districts show that voters have accepted the latest Maoist-UML coalition: “The results show that the majority of voters are still with old, established parties.”

While these polls were important to the parties to gauge their popularity, it will not have any earth-shaking consequences on national politics. There is also little public interest among Nepalis bearing the brunt of unemployment, inflation, and pollution.

Dhana Kumari Sunar, formerly of the National Women's Commission Nepal, says that the millions spent on elections have not translated into meaningful impact on the lives of constituents.

She adds, “What is more important than who won and who lost is keeping track of what difference it will make on the quality of education, health care and employment in these constituencies.”