Why fewer women may be elected this time

After having served five years in office, Manju Devi Gurung was once again chosen by the UML as its deputy mayor candidate for Pokhara. Gurung had initially opposed her party’s decision because she wanted to contest as mayor, but later re-registered her candidacy.

She is one of the many grassroots politicians who are actively pushing back at the male leadership of the parties who consider deputy mayors as incapable of taking on the top post.

Indeed, even as the Election Commission records show an increase in the number of female candidates for mayor and rural municipality chair, the appointment of women to top political positions will likely decrease this time.

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In 2017, seven women were elected mayors and 276 were elected deputy mayors, while 11 female leaders were appointed chairpersons and 424 vice-chairpersons of rural municipalities.

While 345 women across the country had run for mayors and rural municipality chiefs in 2017, 466 women have registered their candidacies for the top position this time. Similarly, 3,359 women have filed for the position of deputy mayor and deputy chief, up from 3,291 in the last election.

The three biggest parties — UML, Nepali Congress (NC) and the Maoist Centre have put up more female candidates for the top post this time. UML has fielded 27 women for mayors and 28 for village chiefs or chairperson, up from eight and 13 respectively in 2017.

The NC had nominated 16 candidates for mayor and 10 women candidates for village chair in 2017. This time 12 women have been fielded for mayor and 19 for chairpersons. The Maoists had 17 mayoral candidates and 18 village chair candidates last election. This time, there are 18 mayor hopefuls and 29 women running for village chairs.

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In 2017, the UML had 662 female candidates, NC had 636 and the Maoists had 604 for deputy mayor and deputy chair. This time, the UML has nominated 670 women, NC 475 women, and the Maoists 475.

While the UML has slightly increased the number of women nominated for deputy positions, the number of women running for deputy positions from the NC and Maoist Centre have decreased.

Political analyst Indra Adhikari says that although the increase in female candidates for top local office is a positive step, there is a catch: “Nepal’s female mayors and chairs have done remarkable work in the last five years. Given their achievements and potential, it was natural for the number of women candidates to increase, but they have been sidelined from leadership positions by the central party leadership citing political reasons.”

Indeed, the electoral alliance within the governing 5-party coalition led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur’s Nepali Congress has meant that many municipality tickets are going entirely to male candidates because they are from different parties. There is no constitutional provision to select candidates of different genders in election partnerships.

The male-dominated party hierarchy has taken advantage of this loophole to nominate their cronies, and given women fewer tickets. Says Adhikari: “Women have been given the fundamental right to proportional inclusion by Nepal’s constitution. Yet we do not see that being implemented.”

Dila Sangraula Pant, an NC MP, says the number of women candidates has decreased because of the five-party electoral alliance as there are no laws or mandates requiring women to be nominated in election partnerships.

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MP Amrita Thapa of the Maoist Centre agrees that the current political equation has barred capable women from running for top positions in the local election despite elected women having proven their mettle in the last five years.

The number of women in municipal leadership is also expected to decrease. Adhikari says this is a reflection of the patriarchy’s distrust of female leadership. She wants the 33% female participation rule to apply to mayor and chairperson appointments as well.

“Nepal’s political parties and society at large have not yet created an environment in which women can be trusted in key political and leadership roles,” she says. “Male candidates are automatically picked because parties fear that female candidates will bring in fewer votes. Women are not in a position to lobby for tickets, they still do not have access to inheritance, and thus are unable to raise election money.”

The UML’s Bishnu Rijal admits that Nepali politics has been dominated by men in top leadership positions resulting in male-dominated committees within parties, while women have always been relegated to supporting roles. “This is what has led to women candidates being less acceptable to the political leadership at election time. Although women are nominated and contest elections, their participation has not been accepted wholeheartedly. Political parties need internal reform to change this mind set.”

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