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Ahead of Nepal’s Election, Many Decry the Lack of Choice

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The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Ahead of Nepal’s Election, Many Decry the Lack of Choice

The nomination of veteran candidates and their patrons comes at the cost of historically underrepresented and marginalized groups – including women.

Ahead of Nepal’s Election, Many Decry the Lack of Choice

A Nepali voter casts a ballot during the local elections in May 2022.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ramesh Yadav

Following local elections in May, Nepal is set to hold general elections on November 20, with 18 million voters heading to the polls to elect 275 House of Representatives and 550 Provincial Assembly members. Under the mixed electoral system, 60 percent of representatives will be elected through the first-past-the-post system while 40 percent will be elected through the proportional representation system. The election results, expected to be released by December 8, will have a significant impact on Nepal’s political trajectory going forward.

The elections will be a contest between two major alliances, led by the Nepali Congress (NC) – head of the incumbent coalition and government – and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), the primary opposition party. The NC alliance includes the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Socialist, the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party, and the Rastriya Janamorcha, while the CPN-UML alliance includes the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) and the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP).

Finalized after negotiations over seat-sharing modalities, the coalitions have been described as marriages of convenience by analysts, who argue that parties have come together for the sole purpose of garnering enough seats to form the next government.

Indeed, recently released manifestos demonstrate the stark difference in political ideologies between parties under the same alliance. The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center’s manifesto calls for the adoption of a directly elected presidential system and a fully proportional electoral system but its coalition partner – the Nepali Congress – disagrees. Similarly, opposition alliance member RPP’s manifesto proposes a directly elected presidential system and a fully proportional electoral system – a proposal its coalition partner, the CPN-UML, doesn’t accept. In its manifesto, the Hindu nationalist and royalist RPP also proposes the reinstatement of Nepal’s monarchy, but remains partnered with the CPN-UML, which has been historically anti-monarchy.

Political leaders’ opportunistic marriages of convenience have created frustration among Nepal’s public, as has the nomination of veteran candidates and their patrons at the cost of historically underrepresented and marginalized groups.

The disenchantment with Nepal’s current political leadership is encapsulated by the popular “No, Not Again” campaign – designed to protest the possible re-election of veteran political leaders. In the absence of a term limit, incumbent Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba of the NC is on his fifth stint as prime minister, while his immediate predecessor, K.P. Sharma Oli of the CPN-UML, has served thrice.

While several male veteran politicians are up for reelection, women are largely absent from the list of nominees under the first-past-the-post-system. This is despite the fact that Article 84 of the Constitution of Nepal mandates that at least one-third of the members elected from each political party to the federal parliament should be women. Of the total 2,412 candidates contesting for 165 House of Representatives seats, only 225 are women (9.3 percent). Of the 3,224 candidates fighting for 330 Provincial Assembly seats, only 280 are women (8.7 percent).

For 165 House of Representatives seats, the CPN-UML has fielded 141 candidates, of which 11 are women (7.8 percent); the Nepali Congress has fielded 91 candidates, of which five are women (5.5 percent); and the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre has fielded 47 candidates, of which nine are women (19.1 percent). The Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Socialist and the Rastriya Janamorcha have fielded only one female candidate each.

The state of the proportional representation system – designed to ensure inclusion of underrepresented groups – also falls short, with quotas being used to nominate influential patrons.

Calls for improved representation, leading up to the local and general elections, haven’t been heeded.

Hisila Yami, former president of the All-Nepal Women’s Association (Revolutionary) who has twice-served as a cabinet minister, explained, “Right now, the question of saving, supporting, and strengthening the hard-won present coalition is the main concern. The broader issues have overshadowed issues of inclusivity, which is in danger.”

She added that “the feudal patriarchal mindset is a big hurdle.”

Frustrations surrounding political agendas and candidacies have heightened the risk of electoral violence. Nepal’s short stint with democratic elections has seen its fair share of disruptions – leading up to the 2017 general elections and during the May 2022 local polls.

Election Commission Chief Dinesh Kumar Thapaliya, however, believes effective safety measures are in place and electoral violence is unlikely during this cycle. Thapaliya said that the government has “identified localities with high violence and disruption rates in the past and formulated security plans for them. The security plans will ensure that for every polling center, response time to disruptions will stay under 30 minutes.”

Ghumti tolis, roaming groups comprised of government officials and security forces, along with the Joint Election Operation Center will broadly oversee electoral conduct, he added.

Despite the Election Commission’s efforts, there has been a rapid increase in clashes and vandalism leading up to the general elections.

Even if electoral violence and disruption are kept in check, election boycotting and high rates of vote invalidity continue to pose threats to the upcoming elections.

At least half a dozen fringe communist parties have announced plans to boycott the elections, with the central committee of the Communist Party of Nepal even deciding to do wall paintings, distribute leaflets, and conduct rallies to encourage the Nepali public to snub polls. Experts worry this may influence constituents, who are already wary of their electoral candidates.

Invalid votes, registering at 17 percent for the local elections and 14 percent for the federal and provincial elections during the 2017 electoral cycle, remain a major concern. This is common in Nepal due to a lack of voter education, complicated ballot papers, and confusion created by ever-shifting political alliances and party symbols.

Thapaliya noted that the Election Commission is cognizant of these issues and has addressed them. “We have significantly changed the ballot papers and method of voting. Previously, voters would have to fill out seven ballot papers and put them in one ballot box, but now, there are four ballot papers to be put in four separate ballot boxes. Each ballot paper only has to be marked once,” the EC chief explained.

“We have also collaborated with social groups like youth clubs to carry out voter education at a grassroots level, for which we go house-to-house showing people the new ballot papers and showing them how to vote,” Thapaliya continued.

Notably, Thapaliya emphasized the Election Commission’s use of media to increase voter education – a relatively new phenomenon in Nepal’s political landscape. “We have used all forms of the media to advertise the elections, encourage voting, and increase electoral participation,” said Thapaliya.

Parties, candidates, and constituents have recently begun using the media, especially social media, for their political pursuits. The local elections in May of this year marked an ostensible shift from traditional campaigning to social media campaigning. While this shift provided new avenues of advertisement, especially useful for independent candidates without a traditional political base, it also significantly increased the spread of misinformation and hate speech, which the Election Commission was unprepared to address due to the novelty of social media use in Nepal’s elections.

Kiran Chapagain, a cross-border disinformation expert serving as a consultant to the Election Commission, says the EC has learned from the local elections and taken significant steps to address issues arising from electoral social media usage. “The Election Commission is Nepal’s first public institution to formulate a policy on social media and define the terms misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech, which shows how much importance we have given to it,” Chapagain noted. “We have a zero-tolerance policy on misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech. Our key priorities are ensuring fair and objective political advertisements and curbing the spread of misinformation, be it domestic or cross-border.”

Although the Election Commission has successfully formulated an electoral code of conduct for social media usage, its effective implementation is lagging, with misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech continuing to be issues that could mislead and influence constituents as well as sway electoral outcomes.

As Nepal heads to polls amid these issues and more, electoral conduct leading up to and on November 20, along with electoral outcomes, will be telling of the state of its nascent democracy – undermined significantly by then Prime Minister Oli’s decision to dissolve the parliament twice during his tenure. In particular, the clash of varying political ideologies and ambitions presents a significant threat to the political stability of Nepal, which has seen 13 different governments in the past 16 years.