Nepal Lists to the Left
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