As the election process continues in full swing, with the filing of nomination on Sunday for polls to the provincial and federal legislatures on November 26 and December 7, political parties are promising the moon to a frustrated and angry electorate for the third time in nine years. While the first two elections — 2008 and 2013 — were for the constituent assembly, the upcoming one is the first time voting will take place in a federal set-up, under the constitution delivered two years ago.
On the one hand, there is visible enthusiasm among the electorate. At the same time, however, the fears of a tussle at the highest levels, especially between the president and prime minister, are pouring cold water on the excitement. Last week, President Bidhya Devi Bhandari threw a jibe at Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba when she hosted a reception in honour of the top leaders of three major parties. “Now that every aspect of the situation is favourable to the prime minister,” she said, “he can concentrate on conducting the polls.” Deuba had inducted seven more ministers from Rastriya Prajatantra Party, a new ally, in the council of ministers on the last day of the parliament session, hours before its tenure ended. Then, a week later, he stripped all 17 ministers from the Maoist party off their portfolios after the party crossed over to the newly-formed Left Alliance. On both actions taken by Deuba, who is also the chairman of the Nepali Congress, Bhandari was quiet.
However, Bhandari, a former vice president of the main opposition — the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) — began consulting the heads of “constitutional bodies”, hearing their grievances and seeking their suggestions on conducting elections. Constitutional and civil society leaders opine that the president is “just doing what she should as the head of the state”. But in a country where political partisanship is visible at all levels, including among the supreme court judges, members of constitutional bodies and the bureaucracy, such activities are seen with suspicion. Bhandari, in her capacity of the supreme commander of the army, is also likely to play a role in the mobilisation of security forces during the election and may not be guided completely by what the cabinet led by the Nepali Congress recommends.
An analysis of the local bodies poll that took place some months ago shows that the UML and Maoist votes, if put together, exceeds the Nepali Congress’s tally by 1. 2 million. That is a significant margin given that the average electorate in a parliamentary constituency is about 1,00,000. Despite the many differences and hurdles the UML and Maoists faced while finalising their common manifesto and candidates, the formation of the Left Alliance has given it a huge psychological advantage over the faction-ridden Nepali Congress.
Nepali Congress, the oldest and currently the largest democratic party in the country, is busier finding out who brought the left parties together, than in formulating an effective counter strategy.
In a country with conspiracy theories galore, there are multiple “suspects”: China, which has increased its interest and presence in the north, certain influential ex-bureaucrats from India who had, in alliance with the European Union, brought the Maoists and key political parties together in 2005-06. Conspiracy theories aside, Nepal’s key political parties — Nepali Congress, UML and the Maoists — still maintain a closer link with those bureaucrats, the Indian National Congress and the CPM in Delhi than with the BJP leaders. The latter, after all, came to power long after Nepal politics had been radicalised. But at the moment Delhi is apprehensive about Nepal going “Red”. Delhi’s hope that the Maoists, under Pushpa Kamal Dahal, are as trustworthy as the king or the Nepali Congress was in the past, has been belied. It is expected to “review” its policy sooner than later.
Maoist minister Janardan Sharma, who was stripped of the home affairs portfolio earlier but continues in the ministry, says that Deuba is still conspiring to “postpone” elections and continue in power indefinitely. While Deuba discounts these allegations, the visible tussle at the top along partisan lines appears as proof that the polls may not be “free and fair”. The international community, especially the US, UN and EU diplomatic missions, are demanding a role with more power than “observation”, as in the past. This has been resisted by the election commission.
The mutual distrust among the internal political actors and the fear of the international community about the fairness of the poll also appear to confirm some suspicions. The electoral prospects of the Left Alliance, which already controls some state instruments, may lead Nepal’s politics towards totalitarianism.