The first surprise was the turnout. About 65 percent of Nepal’s 13.5 million voters cast ballots in the country’s general elections held this May. Conventional wisdom was that since Nepalis were fed up with non-performance and corruption, incited by a Maoist boycott and threats of violence, and uninspired by an issue-less campaign, they would stay away from the booths in large numbers.
Instead, the turnout was as high as in the last elections five years ago. Not only that, Nepali voters surprised everyone by showing more maturity in their collective judgement than the politicians they had elected. They decided that the Nepali Congress will form a majority government, and the Communist Party of Nepal United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) will provide the main opposition.
Another surprise was the rejection of many of the old faces in all parties who had been associated with horse-trading and various other scandals. Voters also rejected linguoor ethno-opportunist politicians bent on promoting their own brand of narrow communalism, such as ‘independent’ communist Padma Ratna Tuladhar and Hindi protagonist Gajendra Narayan Singh, who has been minister in every horse-traded coalition cabinet of the second parliament. Singh’s defeat (along with Bam Dev Gautam’s, of whom more below) was a sign that Nepali voters do not buy pro -or anti-Indian arguments. They have their own national worries aplenty.
The biggest surprise of all, however, was the complete decimation of the Communist Party of Nepal Marxist-Leninist (CPN-ML). A similar fate met the Lokendra Bahadur Chand faction of the rightist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), known as a party of “all chiefs and no Indians”. The CPN-ML separated from the parent CPN-UML in 1998, while the RPP (Chand) broke away from the Surya Bahadur Thapa faction of the party of the same name. Neither won a single seat in the 205-member House of Representatives.
One reason for the CPN-ML rout was that its leadership was not able to explain to the people why it went for a split. The party’s strongman Bam Dev Gautam had tried to push a draconian “anti-terrorist” pro-police bill directed,at quelling the Maoist insurgency when he was deputy prime minister and home minister in Chanel’s short-lived government. And then, there he was in the election campaign project ing himself and his party as ideologically close to the Maoists — with the hope of pulling proMaoist sympathy votes. But neither the voters nor the Maoists fell for it.
After the split, the CPN-ML had also tried to distance itself from the “Pajero scandal” by requiring its MPs to surrender the luxury vehicles they, along with MPs of other parties, had imported duty free without disclosing their source of income. This late attempt at party purification ended in a farce, leaving the voters to tun to known older devils rather than to sanctimonious new ones.
A constant refrain during the poll campaign had been that a hung parliament and small parties prone to horse-trading are the cause all ills. This seems to have turned voters away from smaller parties and independents in favour of large potential winners. Major exceptions were two extreme left parties which did much better than the last time, and together managed to send six vociferous comrades to the new House of Representatives.
Before the split in the CPN-UML, the communists were the largest party in the second parliament and had even formed a minority government for nine months in 1994-1995. It is widely believed that, had they remained united (and relatively clean), they could have formed a majority government this time around. After the split —a result of personality clashes, differences over the Mahakali Treaty with India and spoils of office as well as arcane Marxist hairsplitting — the two groups spent all their energies in fratricidal warfare instead of challenging their real opponent, the Nepali Congress.
As a public radio commentator saw it, both communists came out winners in this election The CPN-ML’s real objective was to prevent the CPN-UML from winning the elections, in which it succeeded admirably by dividing the left vote and allowing the Congress its margin of victory in close contests. The CPN-UML, in turn, was only interested in decimating the CPN-ML, which it has done with brilliance.
Nurtured in the underground egalitarian comradeship of secrecy and conspiracies, the Nepali Left is having a difficult time adjusting to the dynamics of parliamentary practices and the open polity of mass-based democratic upsurges. The erstwhile underground comrades seem unable to accept another communist as a Commentary senior in the overground party hierarchy without feeling a threat of annihilation. An underground culture is also a poor school to teach the virtues of accommodation and compromise, with the result that the slightest difference of opinion is magnified into a global ideological warfare with no prisoners taken.
For a change, the Nepali Congress was able to present a united front after Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala announced that he would campaign to have his main rival in the party, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, as the next prime minister. So far, Koirala has stuck to his promise, although the experience of the past leaves voters suspicious that dormant fratricidal tendencies among the supporters of the two will break into the open once the fish and loaves of office begin to be distributed.
This was essentially an issue-less election, and there are several big challenges in the days ahead that will strain the cohesion of the ruling and opposition parties as well as the future of parliamentary democracy in Nepal. The Congress has to stay relatively united and disciplined to actually deliver some development to the people, and the CPN-UML should provide an effective parliamentary opposition taking all the other opposition parties of the right and the left along with it.
A reason for nervousness and impatience in the opposition benches will be the high cost of elections that has just been completed. Based on public admissions by candidates in previous elections, a candidate of a major party spends at least a million rupees in his or her constituency. This amounts to more than 200 million rupees (USD 3 million) countrywide per major party, and this is a conservative estimate. While it can be waggishly argued that this is a more effective socialist wealth re-distribution programme than mentioned in any of the party manifestoes, there is still a need to replenish the party coffers for the next round.
The CPN-UML may find it very difficult to be content with staying in the opposition benches for five years with little chance of meeting those internal needs. It will also have few perks to deliver to its restless and expectant supporters. The Congress, with its hands in the till, could do better but not much more so. Issues of governance and past neglect will haunt it. Predictably, the opposition will be tempted to make political capital out of every lapse and if it manages this with savvy, even if its coffers may not match the ruling party’s, the next time around the CPN-UML may get its chance to sit on the hot seat.