Antiestablishmentarianism. That new word has entered Nepal’s political lexicon.
Kathmandu has elected a lawyer, Lalitpur a doctor, both women under 35 from the independent Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP), which was formed just five months ago by tv anchor Rabi Lamichhane, who also won from Chitwan.
Major municipalities had just voted for independent candidates like Balen Shah and Harka Sampang in the May local election when Lamichhane decided to ride the wave. Since then, the outrage of many Nepalis over the country’s non-performing serial politicians seems to have only grown.
To be sure, the 30-year Congress-Communist polarisation that destabilised Nepal’s politics is here to stay with Nepali Congress (NC) and the opposition UML set to retain their dominance in the new federal parliament, but independent candidates will be the new movers and shakers.
The RSP has swept 4 out of 10 Kathmandu seats, other independents have also raked up anti-establishment votes rejecting the likes of Ishwar Pokhrel, Onsari Gharti Magar, Pampha Bhusal, Shankar Pokharel, Kamal Thapa, Upendra Yadav, Ramkumari Jhakri and Rabindra Mishra.
The Maoist-Centre fared poorly everywhere, showing that voters are not impressed with their efforts to airbrush war crimes, and their past record. The Unified Socialists were punished for their opportunistic and unprincipled involvement in the 5-party coalition. Indeed, the big question now is if the coalition will even get enough seats to form a government.
“The general population is not satisfied with mainstream political parties fighting elections through alliances,” says NC leader Minendra Rijal who was not given a ticket for the polls by his party. “The governing coalition is unlikely to fare as well. There was disappointment before, but now people are even more bitter.”
Many supporters of the NC and Maoist-Centre appear to have defied party edicts and voted against each other and for independent or rebel candidates. Although the UML is also losing some of its support base to new candidates, it has fared better.
“The coalition votes were split and scattered. The losers this time are Maoist Centre, Unified Socialists, and the Mashes-based JSP and LSP,” explains political analyst Puranjan Acharya.
Until press time on Thursday, the NC had won 32 seats in Parliament and is leading in 20 constituencies. Gagan Thapa, who is also NC General Secretary, has publicly declared that he would like to be the next prime minister and replace “those who have had many chances in the past to serve the country”. But that will depend on the fate of NC and the governing coalition in the coming days, it is certain no one party is going to get a majority.
The opposition UML is leading in 29 constituencies and has locked in 19 seats. The Maoist Centre is trailing far behind with just 9 seats and leading in only 7 constituencies while Unified Socialist has 7 and so does RSP. RPP has won 4, Loktantrik Samajbadi and Nagarik Unmukti have 2 each while Janata Smajwadi, Rastriya Janamorcha, Janamat and Nepal Kisan Majdur have each won one seat so far. In the far west Tarai, the Nagarik Unmukti party of Resham Chaudhary and Rastriya Janamorcha are ahead of the race in the Tarai, with more established Madhes-based parties struggling.
The UML is doing even better than the NC in seats under the Proportional Representation (PR) mechanism, already raking up 603,708 votes. NC has received 572,698 votes so far. The Unified Socialists, which split from the UML, is not getting even one PR seat.
The RSP is also forecast to add many more PR seats, perhaps even becoming the third-largest party ahead of the Maoist Centre in the new federal Parliament. This is a dramatic rise for a party that was formed only six months.
Many young and forceful candidates campaigning for good governance, accountability, better service delivery and job-creation have been elected, and there will be more as results come in. The people have spoken, it is now for the antiestablishmentarians to shake things up in Nepal’s legislature.
NC leader Minendra Rijal told Himal Khabar in an interview: “We must congratulate the RSP, but their road ahead is not easy. People had once voted the Maoists to power by a landslide out of frustration with mainstream parties. We all know what became of them.”
He adds: “At the same time, I request my party mates to put a halt on their aspirations for prime ministership for now and instead focus on revamping Nepali Congress which will be in the interest of both the country and the party itself.”
When final results?
Five days after the general elections, only half of the constituencies have had their votes counted and winners announced. In the lead up to the polls, the Election Commission has estimated all the results for First Past The Post candidates to come in a week’s time, and by 1 December, announce the complete outcome.
Authorities had taken 13 days to count the votes following the local election in May, where 34,953 representatives were elected in 6 metropolitan cities, 11 sub-metropolitan cities, 276 municipalities and 460 rural municipalities.
The 20 November federal elections, however, had far fewer candidates at 11,543 and also fewer seats to fill in, 275 in the House of Representative and 550 in the Provincial Assembly.
Unlike in the local elections, this time one didn’t have to vote for many posts in the ballot. In fact, there were four separate ballot boxes to make it easy for counting,” says former Chief Election Commissioner Ayodhi Prasad Yadav. “Which is why we should get the results within a week.”
Chief Election Commissioner Dinesh Kumar Thapaliya agrees: “By 8 December, we plan to publish the complete results including that of the Proportional Representation. If required we will fly the ballot in from the remote parts of the country.”
Many Nepalis did not even bother to vote in the polls, recording the lowest turnout in recent years at only 61%. In Rolpa where the Maoist insurgency began in 1996, turnout was a mere 40% and it was similar in Gorkha from where Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoist Centre is contesting.
Much of this is because of the people’s disillusionment with mainstream parties. But Nepal’s flawed electoral system is also to be blamed. There is no voting by mail despite a 2018 Supreme Court ruling meaning nearly 5 million Nepalis living and working abroad cannot exercise their rights.
The excuse for this is that mail voting could open up avenues for fraud, but the real reason is that it will allow for young, educated Nepalis to further undermine the establishment and vote for alternative candidates.
The government is also in no hurry to introduce electronic voting machines because the parties don’t trust each other and fear that the other might cheat. Ironic, given that the Maoists got away with tearing up hardcopy ballot papers in Chitwan in 2017.
The fact that this is an election of alliances where parties of diametrically opposing ideologies have come together has made it that much more confusing for voters. This could have meant that the large proportion of ballot papers were disqualified, skewing the outcome itself.
The good news is that learning from the May local election, the Election Commission has this time made four separate ballot papers for different seats.
Even so, Nepal needs a more reliable vote counting system in place which as of now is as archaic as they come. And contrary to what our leaders believe, it would make the counting fairer and faster.
The longer counting takes, the higher the temptation for the losing side to disrupt the process, perhaps cheat and even resort to violence. Some of this is happening in constituencies where established leaders are trailing.