Nepal Lists to the Left

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Thomas Bell in Kathmandu

Af­ter a hia­tus dur­ing the Maoist in­sur­gency, vot­ing is be­com­ing rou­tine in Nepal again. Ear­lier this year, amid much pub­lic en­thu­si­asm, lo­cal elec­tions were held for the first time in two decades. The coun­try is cur­rently in the midst of a two-phase poll to elect mem­bers of the lower house of Par­lia­ment, and seven new state as­sem­blies. This elec­tion is there­fore his­toric, be­cause it fi­nally im­ple­ments the fed­eral, repub­li­can con­sti­tu­tion that took seven painful years, and two elected con­stituent as­sem­blies, to draft.

There are signs that the pub­lic is suf­fer­ing from fa­tigue. The first round, con­ducted in moun­tain re­gions on Novem­ber 26, saw a drop in turnout by al­most 10 per cent, com­pared to the lo­cal polls. If that trend is main­tained when the rest of the coun­try votes on De­cem­ber 7, it may make the re­sult a lit­tle more un­pre­dictable. Nev­er­the­less, an al­liance of nom­i­nally ‘com­mu­nist’ par­ties, the Uni­fied Marx­ist Lenin­ists (UML) and the for­mer Maoist rebels, is ex­pected to emerge with enough seats to form the next govern­ment. Likely as that seems, sur­prises can’t be ruled out.

This ‘Left Al­liance’, which was an­nounced two months ago, took ob­servers by sur­prise as these par­ties have been bit­ter an­tag­o­nists in re­cent years. Nev­er­the­less, the elec­toral logic is plain, and ap­par­ently they

in­tend to merge com­pletely. Their main op­po­nent, the rul­ing Nepali Congress, was com­pelled to hastily as­sem­ble a hand­ful of smaller par­ties into a less for­mal al­liance of its own. Ide­o­log­i­cal is­sues are mostly ab­sent from both cam­paigns.

In­dia is not pleased with the emer­gence of the Left al­liance. The UML leader and prob­a­ble next prime min­is­ter, K.P. Oli, was pre­vi­ously a close ally of Delhi, but their agen­das di­verged when he was prime min­is­ter in 2015-16. He took a strong, widely pop­u­lar, na­tion­al­ist tone against his for­mer back­ers, and piv­oted to­wards Bei­jing. China is reck­oned to have of­fered moral, and per­haps ma­te­rial, sup­port to the Left Al­liance. In­dia is pre­sumed to be do­ing the same for the Nepali Congress and its as­so­ciates.

Nev­er­the­less, who­ever wins will want to quickly es­tab­lish trust with Delhi. Fu­ture Nepali gov­ern­ments, of any party, will also cer­tainly seek im­proved eco­nomic and trans­port ties to the north.

Most Nepalis will be glad if this elec­tion brings some re­lief from the re­lent­less po­lit­i­cal churn­ing. The cam­paign has been more peace­ful, so far, than the na­tional polls in 2008 or 2013. Like the flag­ging turnout, that may sug­gest peo­ple are weary, and a phase of in­tense contestation is over. The de­mands of iden­tity pol­i­tics, which were raised in re­cent years, were not fully ad­dressed by the con­sti­tu­tion. Yet the heat also seems to have gone out of this is­sue, for the time be­ing at least. The mas­sive cam­paign spend­ing in all of this year’s polls points to­wards a dif­fer­ent, strength­en­ing trend: the great power of busi­ness car­tels and po­lit­i­cally linked con­trac­tors in pol­i­tics. The de­cline of wran­gling over is­sues could be the flow­er­ing of a syn­di­cate-thekedar raj.

FRESH SIGNS A Nepali voter at a polling booth in Chau­tara, Sind­hu­pal­chowk dis­trict, Nov. 26

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