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Nepal Set for 3-Way Competition in Upcoming Legislative Elections

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The Pulse

Nepal Set for 3-Way Competition in Upcoming Legislative Elections

A surprise alliance between Nepal’s two main communist parties has China excited and India dismayed.

Nepal Set for 3-Way Competition in Upcoming Legislative Elections

A protester affiliated with CPN-Maoist Center waves a flag during a protest against India near the Indian embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal (Sept. 30, 2015).

Credit: AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha

Nepal is heading toward the final chapter of implementing its new constitution, which will come with the election of the federal and provincial parliaments. That will take place simultaneously in two phases, to be held on November 26 and December 7 this year.

Nepal’s constitution was promulgated on September 20, 2015, amid protest by some Madhes-based parties. The country has witnessed several ups and down in course of constitutional implementation over the last two years; the completion of federal and provincial legislation elections will mark the end of the process. As per the constitutional provisions, local-level elections have already been peacefully concluded, encouraging the participation of Nepal’s people.

The election process for the national and provincial parliaments has already started, with parties submitting lists of candidates under the Proportional Representation (PR) category to the Election Commission on October 15. Altogether, 55 parties have registered their candidacy under the PR category. To get the status of a national party, a party must get at least three percent of the vote for PR seats and one seat under “first-past-the-post” allocations. This means it will be challenging for fringe parties to survive. Nepal’s legislative elections will likely be a three-way competition between the united leftist parties, the Nepali Congress, and the regional, Madhes-based parties of Nepal’s southern belt.

The election is going to be interesting, as the two prominent communist parties have forged an unexpected electoral alliance. In a dramatic turns of events, the Communist Party Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) and CPN-Maoist Center decided to forge an electoral alliance on August 3, alienating the largest party, the Nepali Congress (NC).

The UML and Maoists secured the first and third position, respectively, in the recently concluded local-level elections. Other leftist parties are also joining the broader alliance initiated by the two major parties. The alliance hopes to win the upcoming elections and rule the country for the next five to ten years, which has put NC into a difficult position.

As per the agreement between the two parties, the UML and Maoists will field their candidates in 60 and 40 percent of constituencies, respectively, in first-past-the-post category. The two parties will also allocate some seats to fringe left parties to consolidate the communist forces in the country. Along with their alliance, the two parties also formed a joint team of leaders to work on party unification, which they plan to formalize after the elections are over.

The joint statement issued by the UML and the Maoists states that a single communist party will formed after the elections. Communist parties in Nepal have dreamed of uniting into a single party before, but it has never materialized. Now, for the first time since their founding in the 1990s, the two dominant communist parties have expressed their goal of party unification.

The announcement came as a surprise for many, as the CPN-Maoist Center party is a crucial coalition partner in the current government, led by Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba. The Maoist party, which had pledged to seek a long-term alliance with the NC, suddenly decided to join hands with main opposition party, the UML. However, the CPN-Maoist Center has pledged that it will continue to support the current government to ensure the elections are successfully conducted as scheduled.

Now that the leftist parties have joined forces against it, the ruling NC, a centrist party, is preparing to form its own broader democratic alliance. The party is holding talks with democratic parties regarding electoral alliances. “We will push a broader democratic alliance to counter the growing left alliance in Nepal. Democratic parties should come together,” senior Nepali Congress leader Prakash Sharan Mahat told The Diplomat. Some fringe parties, such as Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Loktantrik, have already merged with the NC. If this moves ahead, there will be polarization between the left and democratic ideologies, which might lead the country toward a two-party system.

However, there is a third force after the NC and the new leftist alliance: Madhes-based parties. The Madhes-based parties have strong presence in Terai, a crucial part of country located along the border with India. Two prominent Madhes-based parties, Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N) and Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum-Nepal, secured the second and third positions, respectively, in the recently concluded local elections of Province No 2, in southeastern Nepal.

There are geopolitical dimensions to the new political alignments in Nepal. Last year, Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, commonly known as Prachanda, became prime minister after allying with the NC to topple the government led by UML Chairman K.P. Oli. The UML accused Prachanda of being pro-Indian, while Oli was seen as tilting more toward China. There was a verbal war between two parties. The relationship between Prachanda and Oli had soured as a result, but now they have suddenly decided to seek party unification, shocking many political pundits. That has led some observers to say an external power played a role in bringing the two communist parties together.

China, which is increasing its influence in the internal political affairs of Nepal, was not happy with the coalition of the NC and CPN-Maoist Center party. China would prefer to see the UML and Maoists forge an electoral alliance and even seek party unification. China believes that the unification of communist parties in Nepal and the formation of a communist-led government will be helpful to protect its interest in Nepal.

On the other hand, India was at the same time trying its best to continue the current alliance between the NC and the Maoists for the long term. The NC has traditionally been closer to India, thus India perceives that an NC-Maoist alliance will be helpful to reduce growing Chinese influence in Nepal. China was reportedly unhappy after the NC and Maoists tried to isolate the UML in national politics over the last year.

According to local media reports, the deal between the UML and Maoists marks a major success for China in shaping the domestic political affairs of Nepal. This clearly indicates that India is losing its influence in Nepal, while Chinese influence is substantially increasing. However, despite these reports, China does not want to give the impression that it is going to isolate the Nepali Congress — or that China is involved in the internal politics of Nepal at all.

Nepal is at a crucial moment; the government that will be formed after the provincial and federal legislative elections will last for a long time. Under the current system, no single party can secure a majority of votes to form a government in the center and pick up chief ministerial candidates in all seven provinces. In this context, the Maoists, the third largest party after the NC and UML, emerged as decisive political force after winning more seats in local-level elections than expected.

If the current coalition continued till the elections, there was the chance that the NC and Maoists would form a new government for the next five years, which could sideline the UML. Now, it seems that the Maoists and UML could easily secure a combined majority of votes in Parliament, enough to form a government themselves. The electoral alliance between the UML and Maoists means the NC’s position in parliament will be very weak, to India’s dismay.

However, history shows that leftist or communist parties cannot sit together for the long term. The Maoists have split into several different parties over time, as has the UML.

Still, if they can remain united, the communists will wield considerable political clout. More than half-a-dozen communist parties were elected in the second Constituent Assembly (CA) election in 2013. Putting the numbers together, leftist parties won twice as many votes as the centrist Nepali Congress. And in the first CA elections, held in 2008, two-thirds of voters cast their ballots for parties identifying themselves as communist. Nepal is one country where communist ideology is thriving.

After the election, it is almost certain that there will be three main political forces: the leftist alliance, the Nepali Congress, and the Madhes-based parties. All that’s left to determine is how strong each force will be.

Kamal Dev Bhattarai is a Nepali journalist who writes on geopolitical issues. He has written a book about Nepal’s peace and constitution drafting process, titled Transition: From 12-Point Understanding to Constitution Promulgation.