As Nepal prepared for general elections in May, the results of a country-wide opinion poll created quite a stir when it was published in mid-April. The poll, seeking to find out how voters assess the country’s politics, political parties and politicians, was the first of its kind and scope in Nepal. Conducted by the research group ORG-MARG Nepal in late February and early March for the media organisation Himal Association, some of the poll findings came as a total surprise. The survey presented a country-wide assessment of the way people are going to vote in the elections, the third since the restoration of democracy in 1990. It also made clear that these percentages should not be construed as translating into a proportionate number of parliamentary seats (as indicated by the 1994 elections, in which although the Nepali Congress secured 33.4 percent as against the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist’s 30.9 percent, the latter ended up as the largest party in Parliament). But despite this disclaimer that the poll did not attempt to predict the composition of the future parliament, it invited a fair amount of brickbats and bouquets from the country’s highly partisan political press, which saw it to be precisely that.
This had mainly to do with the findings regarding the CPN (UML). Conventional wisdom had it that since a large faction of it had broken away to form the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist) in early 1998 (which took away 40 MPs of the united party’s 89 in the outgoing Parliament), the votes would also be divided with the Nepali Congress standing to benefit. The poll, however, indicated that an overwhelming proportion had stayed with the original party. It was the CPN (UML), with 31.9 percent of the respondents favouring it, and not the CPN (ML) with its 3.9 percent, that was likely to prove the main opponent of the Nepali Congress. The Nepali Congress, with 32.2 percent votes polled in its favour, also put up a strong showing. The deciding factor as far as the elections are concerned, however, appears to be the undecided 14.5 percent which may vote either for the NC or the UML in the general elections slated to take place in two phases on 3 and 17 May 1999.
But despite the strong position of the CPN (UML) in the opinion poll, its share of votes in the elections could swing either way by the death of its chairman and former prime minister Man Mohan Adhikari on 26 April (see page 37). While the sympathy factor could work to the CPN (UML)’s advantage, the lack of a leader of his stature may ruin the party’s chances. Adhikari’s great personal appeal was confirmed by the survey which showed that he was the most popular candidate for prime ministership, far ahead of the NC’s candidate for PM, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and the present incumbent Girija Prasad Koirala, also of the NC. At the same time, a majority of the respondents felt Adhikari’s nine-month-long government in 1994-1995 was the best since 1990
There were more surprises in response to the query whether the country’s 10-year-old democratic polity was in any danger. From Day 1 of the new political set-up that emerged after a 50-day sometimes-bloody political struggle in 1990, politicians have been clamouring about the “threat to democracy” — a reference to the political events of 1960 when, after a brief period of parliamentary politics, the king staged a takeover and absolute monarchy reigned for 30 years. But more people felt there was no threat to democracy than those who believed there was. And, this should serve as a warning to politicians as among the latter an overwhelming majority felt the danger emanated from the political parties and the leaders themselves, rather than from the usual round of suspects such as palace sources or the “foreign hand”.
Another indictment of Nepal’s political parties (all of the major ones have been in government at some time or the other) came by way of the query as to how the people perceived the present state of the country as compared to 10 years ago. A fairly high percentage felt that the country is doing okay (thikai in Nepali, implying that things are so-so). But more people thought that the country was somewhat worse off than those who thought it was doing better.
The opinion poll also came up with interesting findings (largely corroborating conclusions from earlier studies) on the relationship between ethnicity and preference for political parties. This was an important distinction to make in an ethnically diverse country like Nepal, and one that could perhaps effect changes in the perception of political parties. Among the two largest communities — Bahuns and Chettris (hill Brahmins and Kshatriyas of Nepal who make up 29 percent of the population) —there is an almost equal preference for NC and CPN (UML). Among the hill ethnic groups, the preference was divided, with NC being favoured by Gurungs and Magars (totalling 10 percent), and the CPN (UML) being favoured by Tamangs, Rais and Limbus (with a combined strength of 10 percent). Among the Dalits (the ‘oppressed’ classes with another 10 percent), the preference was for CPN (UML), while the Tarai people (from near the country’s south, bordering India, with 31 percent) showed a clear inclination towards the NC
“In a context where people listening passively to politicians has been the norm, this exercise seeks in a sense to reverse the roles — where people speak out and politicians have to listen,” said the poll report. If it has been able to achieve that much, the exercise should be considered a success.