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What Caused the Left Alliance’s Landslide Victory in Nepal?

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The Pulse

What Caused the Left Alliance’s Landslide Victory in Nepal?

The huge victory was not a surprise for those following Nepali politics.

What Caused the Left Alliance’s Landslide Victory in Nepal?

A women in the door of her home, next to the election flag of the CPN Maoist Center, in Bahajan district of Province No 7.

Credit: Kamal Dev Bhattari

In the recently concluded elections for the House of Representatives (Nepal’s lower house) and provincial assemblies of Nepal, the two communist parties, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) and CPN (Maoist Center) — which joined forces for the elections under the banner of a left alliance — won a landslide victory.

The left alliance has now secured overwhelming majorities in both the federal bicameral legislature (the House of Representatives and National Assembly) and the provincial assemblies. The left alliance is also likely to form governments in six out of seven provinces.

In the elections for first-past-the-post (FPTP) seats, the left alliance combined to secure 70 percent of seats. Out of 165 total FPTP constituencies, CPN-UML won 80 seats; the CPN (Maoist Center) won 36 seats. The centrist Nepali Congress, which suffered a serious setback, received only 23 seats, under 14 percent of the total available. Two Madhes-based parties, the Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJPN) and the Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum (SSF), combined to secure 21 seats; other fringe parties won the remaining five seats.

Nepal’s parallel election also includes proportional representation (PR), in which voters indicated their support for a party rather than a candidate and seats are meted out accordingly. Here, CPN-UML and Nepali Congress were almost even. UML secured 33.25 percent of votes, NC 32.78 percent, and CPN (Maoist Center) 13.66 percent. The two Madhes-based parties each secured just under 5 percent. Only these five parties – the CPN-UML, NC, CPN (Maoist Center), SSF, and RJPN won enough of the vote to secure under the PR category.

In total, out of the 275 seats in the House of Representatives, the left alliance holds 174 (121 for the CPN-UML and 53 for the Maoists), the NC 63, the RJPN 17, and the SSF 16.

Similarly, as noted above, the left alliance will form a government in six provinces out of seven. Province No. 2, bordering India, is the only exception. As Nepal’s upper house, the National Assembly, will see most seats elected by the provinces, the election results effectively hand the left alliance control of both houses of the Nepali Federal Parliament.

The victory may have come as a surprise for national and international observers. But it was expected, and the reasons behind it are clear, simple, and obvious.

First, in the local polls held couple of months ago, the CPN-UML won control of 296 out of total 753 local bodies, and CPN (Maoist Center) won another 106. All told, the parties that later formed the left alliance won control of 402 local bodies, which is a clear majority. The Nepali Congress (NC), a centrist party which emerged as the largest party after the elections held in 2013, fell to the second largest party in the local-level polls. In the latest elections, there were no considerable changes in these voting patterns.

As political Analyst Shyam Shrestha told The Diplomat, “Past instances show that Nepal has a tendency to lean towards [the] left.” Indeed, the number of voters that support communist parties in Nepal has long been the majority, but those votes have been divided — which has benefited the NC since the restoration of democracy in 1990. There has been considerable infighting among leftist forces, yet the CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Center) still managed to attain 62 percent of votes in the 2008 Constituent Assembly election. In the following CA elections in 2013, despite continual disagreement between leftist forces, “they still managed to get 52 percent” of the vote, Shrestha said.

Given this history, the NC had hoped that there would be cracks in the left alliance of which it could take advantage, but that proved wrong. The left alliance remained intact at the grassroots level and both parties supported each other’s candidates in all constituencies.

CPN-UML became popular after the promulgation of Nepal’s new constitution in 2015. It received wider support after its chairman, K.P. Oli, then the prime minister, firmly stood against what Nepalis saw as a border blockade by India. Many saw Oli’s stance as stalwart nationalism. In addition, CPN-UML’s organizational structure at the grassroots level is strong, managed effectively and vibrant, and the party is more united within itself than other parties.

The left alliance went to the polls with a clear and convincing agenda, which attracted the mass of voters. Ordinary people are frustrated with chronic political instability; they want a stable government. The two communist parties told voters that their victory will ensure stability and prosperity in Nepal. That message resonated.

By contrast, the NC’s election campaign was not effective. The party failed to come up with a clear vision to counter the agenda of the left alliance. During the campaign, NC leaders said that a victory by the left alliance would bring about a totalitarian regime, an argument that failed to impress the general public. In the last three decades, CPN-UML has transformed itself into a democratic force; voters were not convinced that its victory would lead to one-party communist rule.

In an attempt to counter the left alliance, NC tried to forge a democratic alliance but it failed to do so. Before the elections, NC reached out to Madhes-based parties and other fringe parties, but NC leadership failed to convince them to join forces.

Meanwhile, weak leadership, messy organizational structures, and many unpopular decisions by the current NC-led government contributed to the election results. NC, the grand old party that fought the autocratic Rana regime, was established 70 years ago and remained in power for most of the period since 1990. With the party’s poor performance lately, voices inside the NC are increasingly calling for Sher Bahadur Deuba (the current prime minster and the NC’s president) to step down as party chief and hand over leadership to a younger generation. This intra-party rift in the NC was evident in some electoral constituencies, leading to party’s defeat.

If the CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Center) are able to keep their alliance intact and possibly even pursue party unification, they will run Nepal’s government for at least the next five years, maintaining effective control in all state apparatus. The prime minister, president, and legislative speakers at the center will all be from the left alliance, which will also control six provinces and a majority of local-level bodies.

However, several issues of power sharing — mainly between CPN-UML Chairman K.P. Oli and the CPN (Maoist Center) — remain unsettled. The disputes mainly center on the leadership of the government, leadership of the party (if the two do officially unite), and who will hold key positions, such as president and speakers.

The left alliance will also be the first to benefit from new clauses incorporated in the new constitution, with the purpose of preventing frequent changes in government. Article 100 of the new constitution states that no-confidence motions cannot be tabled for the first two years after the appointment of the prime minister, and should a no-confidence motion fail, it will be a full year before another one can be brought forward.

However, if a collation partner withdraws its support for the government and the prime minister fails to secure a majority of votes, the prime minister is allowed to call fresh elections within six months.

Though the left alliance secured a majority of votes, it’s notable that a single party majority is still elusive. Thus there is no guarantee that the victory by the left alliance will ensure political stability in Nepal. Stability largely depends on how the relationship between the CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Center) moves ahead and how they settle power-sharing disputes.

Kamal Dev Bhattarai is Kathmandu-based writer and journalist. He is closely following Nepal’s peace process, constitution drafting, and constitution implementation process.