The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Coalitions in the Fray in Nepal’s Elections Are Marriages of Convenience

Parties share neither ideology nor policy goals with partners; alliances are merely partnerships to win more seats.

Coalitions in the Fray in Nepal’s Elections Are Marriages of Convenience

An elderly woman casts her vote for local level election in Kathmandu, Nepal, Friday, May 13, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha

Nepal is in the grip of election fever. The main contest is between two coalitions: the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Nepali Congress (NC), and the opposition alliance led by Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML).

These are the second round of federal and provincial elections to be held in Nepal since the promulgation of the constitution in 2015.

The “unnatural” coalitions have left many flabbergasted. Kathmandu Post, Nepal’s largest-selling English daily, was blunt in its criticism of the alliances. The elections “had been turned into a dance of undemocratic coalitions as political parties hanker to return to power, by all means, fair and foul,” it said. Another major daily, Republica, expressed ”surprise” that parties that are poles apart in political ideologies and policies have formed alliances. It could lead to a “democratic deficit,” it said. Others have called the alliances a “farce” for not offering voters real choices.

Since the 1990s, parties have formed alliances to form governments in Nepal. The 2017 election was the first time that major communist forces led by Oli and Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, formed a pre-poll alliance. The left alliance won the election and secured a near-two-thirds majority, although it secured just 10 percent more votes than the NC. It prompted a realization among parties of the importance of pre-poll alliances, especially in a winner-takes-all election.

There is little doubt that both alliance partners lack ideological similarity or even common policy goals. They have merely come together as a result of the political context.

The ruling coalition, which counts the Prachanda-led Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center (CPN-MC) among others as partners, came together to oust Oli from power after the latter dissolved parliament against the provisions of the constitution, twice. The desire to keep Oli out of power has primarily held this coalition together. Apprehensive at the prospect of fighting a coalition, the opposition, too, scrambled together to boost its electoral chances.

The alliance partners are strange bedfellows. For example, the Prachanda-led MC once called its current partner, the NC, a party of the bourgeoisie that had tried to decimate it during the decade-long insurgency. Interestingly, Deuba was the prime minister who put a price tag on Prachanda’s head during the peak of the Maoist insurgency.

Likewise, the UML is the nemesis of the Janata Samajbadi party (JSP), which advocates for Madhesi rights. Also, while the UML has a history of fighting against monarchy, its alliance partner now is the Hindu nationalist and royalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP).

Parties have openly said that the alliance is one of convenience to win more seats in the election. “We still have our ideological differences, but we agreed to forge a partnership to improve our electoral prospects,” JSP spokesman Manish Kumar Suman admitted. The JSP dropped out of the ruling coalition after a disagreement over seat allocation to join the opposition.

Opportunism is evident at an individual level too. Prabhu Sah, former minister for urban development, was allotted a ticket to fight as a candidate of the opposition alliance, only to do a volte-face at literally the eleventh hour. At the election office, he registered as an independent candidate after the ruling alliance assured him support.

Prachanda and Oli were comrades-in-arms during the last election in 2017. Together, they swept the federal elections and co-led a unified communist party, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). However, the lust for power and position led to an acrimonious split in the NCP. Now, they are bitter rivals, engaged in a game of one-upmanship against each other.

Yet it would be wrong to assume that alliance partners don’t share goals. The ruling alliance has weaved a narrative that the coalition is one of necessity and more than an attempt to win the election. Its leaders assert that the alliance is necessary to safeguard the constitution from changes by regressive forces. Prachanda said the alliance was essential after Oli led Nepal toward lawlessness and instability.

The ruling alliance’s agenda is to keep Oli and the UML out of power. Oli’s attempts to dissolve the parliament and isolate Prachanda (and Madhav Kumar Nepal, chairman of Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Socialist, a splinter of the UML) in the party led to the current ruling coalition. However, political expediency is keeping the ruling coalition together for the time being.

Interestingly, parties face challenges from within the alliance.

First, many long-serving party cadres who were denied party tickets have chosen to run as “rebel” candidates, while others have bolted to the opposition alliance. This is especially the case among NC leaders, who find voting for a communist party untenable. They have filed candidacies in constituencies where the alliance is fielding a communist candidate. The party has expelled such rebel candidates. There is similar discontent in the opposition alliance. Eighteen central committee members of the RPP wrote to their chair, expressing dissatisfaction with a partnership with the UML.

Therefore, the election result will partly depend upon which alliance manages to pacify disgruntled members and get them to support the alliance candidates.

Second, leaders are concerned that voters will cross party lines to vote for candidates from a different party. This was less of a worry in the 2017 election, where both alliance partners were cadre-based communist parties. However, the current alliances are not natural. NC leaders, such as Gagan Thapa, have said that some party members find it hard to vote for the “hammer and sickle” (the communist party symbol). Therefore, senior leaders of the ruling alliance are taking every opportunity to urge party members and voters to support alliance members. It remains to be seen if voters heed their request.

Third, will alliances last post-election? Even Deuba thinks the coalition is not meant for the long term. In a training session with alliance members, he stated that the alliance should continue for a few years beyond the elections because the threat from regressive forces (read the UML) continues. In the 2017 election, the communist parties won in a landslide and even formally merged their parties, yet it barely lasted three years. Therefore, it would not be surprising if a new coalition emerged after the election.

Analysts are concerned that the politics-driven, agenda-less, and ideologically fraught alliances effectively deny space for genuine elections where people can vote for the parties of their choice. Others warn that such “debased culture could ultimately lead to a serious crisis in democracy.”

These warnings are genuine but may be overblown. Voters cast two votes in the provincial and federal election: one for the candidates (for winner-takes-all, 165 seats) and the other for the party (for proportional seats, 110 seats). Thus, voters still have the opportunity to vote for their preferred parties.

Also, even when parties contested by themselves before the 2017 elections, it hardly resulted in stable politics or policies based on the ideological principles of the parties or candidates. In practice, there are nominal differences in how democratic or communist parties have run the country when in power. Barring a few, parties and political leaders have placed themselves over ideologies.