Turning a new leaf in 2079
Some members of the ruling coalition are still trying to postpone local elections slated for 13 May citing the country’s economic crisis, but preparations are too far done to put it off now.
The main contest will be between the Nepali Congress (NC) and the opposition UML. Which is why the smaller members of the governing alliance are getting cold feet.
The UML and Maoist alliance swept the 2017 federal and provincial elections, but the Nepal Communist Party has since splintered, with the UML also breaking in two. All this is good news for the NC.
Party alliances are less important in local elections, which is why women and new voters who are not loyal to any parties will be making their presence felt in May.
“We have seen that 75-80% of voters close their eyes and cast their ballots out of party loyalty, but 25-30% vote independently,” says former Chief Election Commissioner Bhojraj Pokharel. “These silent voters will be decisive in a close election.”
There was an indication of this trend in the 2017 Kathmandu mayoral race, when the relatively unknown Ranju Darshana of the alternative Bibeksheel Party came out of nowhere to get the third highest number of votes.
“I think there are more and more voters who do not fall for the false promises of established parties and feel free to vote with their conscience,” says Kishor Thapa, also a mayoral candidate from the Sajha Party in the Kathmandu polls in 2017.
The trend has always been that while political parties command vote banks during national elections, many vote independently during local polls. There were many cases in the municipal and ward voting in 2017 where party alliances did not ensure victory for candidates.
“Political parties are making grand nationwide alliances, but in local elections voters look at their own towns or cities and decide who can best serve them,” explains social scientist Suresh Dhakal.
Next month’s local elections will be the second under the federal system, and voters have had the past five years to judge the performance of mayors and municipality chairs. If they have done a good job and are standing again, this time they may be rewarded with votes from supporters of other parties.
The make-or-break issue in this election could be that there are 220,000 new young voters compared to 2017, with a total of 17,733,726 registered voters. While many of these Gen Z voters are expected to vote against established parties, they also tend to be disillusioned with politics and many do not vote.
Which is why the predominant narrative against the main parties on the social web may not be reflected in voting patterns and election results. Voters younger than 23 therefore need to analyse the performance of parties, and not just believe the campaign speeches of candidates.
Alternative parties like Bibeksheel Sajha targetted young voters and tried to imitate the success of the Aam Aadmi Party in India. However personality clashes within them, and their alignment with royalist-religious forces may turn many young voters off.
“Despite all their problems, the established parties did struggle to restore democracy,” explains political analyst Puranjan Acharya. “The so-called alternative parties turned out to be regressive and traditional.”
The most dramatic change in forthcoming elections this year could be the confidence of women candidates for local governments, as well as the empowerment of women voters throughout the country. Women who had been involved in community forestry user groups, drinking water supply, against domestic violence and other social issues are now active in local politics.
“It is not just happening in urban areas, women are now much more aggressive at the grassroots and are demanding accountability from leaders,” says Suresh Dhakal.
The 2015 Constitution mandated that the deputy mayor had to be a woman if the mayor was a man, and there had to be women and Dalit women members of elected ward councils.
In 2017, many women voters said they cast their ballots for women candidates no matter which party they were from. Although this trend is expected to spread, there may be fewer women candidates this time because of the electoral alliances to field common candidates.
There are now seven women mayors out of 293, and 19 female chairs of municipalities out of 460. Out of 6,743 wards, only 61 chairs are women. This shows that even though female membership of local councils has gone up, the executive positions are still predominantly male.
Political analyst Indra Adhikari says that women have shown in the past five years that they can be accountable leaders responsive to public needs, now they need to be re-elected to head at least one-third of the municipalities and wards,” she adds.
Devolution expert Krishna Prasad Sapkota agrees: “The election of women to municipalities and wards has had a positive impact on local governance, parties have to be careful to include women candidates in their ticket list.”