Nepal enters a critical phase of elections to the House of Representatives (HOR), or lower house of the parliament and the Provincial Assemblies simultaneously set for November 20. Party positions thereof will determine the government in power in Kathmandu over the next five years. Political stability has been an issue in Nepal after declaration of a Republic in May 2008 and promulgation of a constitution in October 2015 that has led to establishment of a federal governance system in three tiers – national, provincial, and local. Local elections were held in May and now the rest are to be held in November. While other contentious issues as citizenship have been addressed in the recent past, polls will take the centre piece in political activities in the months ahead.
On November 20, Nepal will vote to elect 275 members for the House of Representatives—165 under the first-past-the-post [FPTP] system and 110 under the proportional representation [PR] system as per the Kathmandu Post. The voting will take place from 7am to 5pm.
Simultaneously, 550 members for the seven provincial assemblies will be elected—330 under the FPTP system and 220 under the PR system. In the internal schedule of the commission, the election commission has scheduled the FPTP candidacy registration for October 9-12 after the Dashain festival. Political parties submit closed lists for the PR electoral system on September 18-19. On September 27, election officers will be appointed, and election offices will be set up on October 7.
The Election Commission is confident after holding local body elections on May 13 in a single phase of holding the next level of polls. Six metropolitan cities, 11 sub-metropolitan cities, 276 municipalities and 460 rural municipalities went to polls with10.7 million voters registered. 10,756 polling stations and 21,955 polling booths were established in 753 local units on May 13.
Local Elections – Party Positions
In the local elections, Nepali Congress led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, which heads the alliance government contested the polls with partners and won the posts of Chiefs in 329 local units, up from 266 in the last local elections held in 2017.
The biggest loser was the main opposition party the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), which secured the chief posts in 205 local units, down from 296 in 2017.
The Maoist Centre won in 121 local units this time, up from 106 in 2017.
While the Janata Samajbadi Party and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Socialist) latter formed after splitting from the CPN-UML in August 2021, came fourth and fifth with 30 and 20 in the polls.
As of now the ruling coalition will be contesting the federal elections enbloc, while a new group of socialist communist parties is being formed under the leadership of CPN Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal within the coalition.
Coalition Politics Leading to Federal Polls
Of the 275 seats for the House of Representatives, 110 seats will be elected through the Proportional Representation system. In seven provincial assemblies, 330 seats are up for grabs under the FPTP while 220 will be elected through the Proportional Representation system.
The five-party coalition Nepali Congress, CPN (Maoist Centre), CPN (Unified Socialist), Janata Samajbadi Party and Rastriya Jana Morcha in the incumbent government after success in the local elections has declared an electoral alliance and will be contesting the federal polls. The main opposition party the CPN-UML is also working towards a coalition surprisingly with right wing parties.
Also, Socialist parties are attempting a new coalition with Maoist Centre Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal leading the effort. Dahal’s present left front idea is minus the CPN UML and has roped in former colleague Baburam Bhattarai and Bamdev Gautam of the Nepal Samajbadi Party and the Gautam-led Nepal Communist Party Unity National Campaign respectively. These parties have announced that they will contest in the polls under the CPN Maoist Centre symbol.
The Nepali Congress which leads the present coalition is increasingly wary as seat sharing will remain contentious. As the Maoist Centre, which is a key constituent of the ruling coalition, itself is bargaining for more seats, adjusting two more parties under its election symbol will remain a challenge.
Preliminary indications are that the Nepali Congress wants to contest in 99 out of 165 seats under the direct election system, leaving the remaining 66 for others. The Maoist Centre is eyeing at least 50 seats; thus, the smaller parties are expected to be disgruntled. A similar proportionate distribution is anticipated for the provincial assemblies resulting in multiple complications. Several candidates who are refused seats may contest as independents, thus splitting the votes. Will the CPN UML the main opposition party benefit from these splits remains to be seen?
Political observers in Nepal also indicate that there is a general resentment against the established leaders and parties. They are seeking a change but the leaders of the older generation as Deuba and Oli are unlikely to leave positions of power. At the same time this opens scope for Independents. During the local polls for instance, Balendra Shah, a popular rapper, and engineer who was an independent candidate swept the polls defeating candidates of established parties. This has raised hopes for young independent candidates.
In positive development, the House of Representatives (HoR) which was suspended due to the strident approach of the main opposition party the CPN UML commenced regular sessions.
President Bidya Devi Bhandari also administered oath of office and secrecy to three Janata Samajbadi Party ministers. The party’s lawmaker Mohammad Ishtiyaq Rayi took oath as minister for physical infrastructure and transport, Pradip Yadav as minister for forest and environment and Mrigendra Singh Yadav as minister for agriculture and livestock development.
Even six months after three ruling parties registered a motion to impeach Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana, the impeachment proposal continues to be in a state of limbo. 98 lawmakers from the Nepali Congress, the CPN (Maoist Centre) and the CPN (Unified Socialist) on February 13 had registered the impeachment motion against Rana, leading to his automatic suspension.
Dev Gurung, chief whip of the CPN (Maoist Centre), tabled the motion, presenting 21 reasons why Rana should be impeached. Rana remains suspended since February 13. With the HOR tenure now likely to end in November, how far this will be moved forward remains to be seen?
HoR and the National Assembly passed a Citizenship Amendment Bill which was however returned by President Bidya Devi Bhandari along with her suggestions for reconsideration. The HoR has passed the Bill a second time as Citizenship is a politically sensitive issue particularly in the southern Madhes belt and would be a determinant in the upcoming polls. With the bill set to be approved by the National Assembly as well in the present form the President will have no option but to finally endorse the same prior to the elections.
Federal elections in Nepal will be keenly watched in India and China. Both regional powers have strong stakes in having parties and leaders with a disposition favourable towards them to come to power in Kathmandu. Thus, some preliminary moves have been made. The United States has also become a principal contestant in this power game after Nepal’s Parliament ratified the Millennium Challenge Corporation Nepal Compact on February 27 after Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), the CPN (Unified Socialist) and the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP)— main partners in the Sher Bahadur Deuba government—agreed to vote in favour thus resolving a critical issue with the US but to China’s discomfort.
As of now the ruling coalition led by the Nepali Congress appears to be having an upper hand in the two-level polls being held in Nepal on November 20th. What permutations and combinations emerge and how stable will a government be in case of lack of a party with a strong majority remains to be seen? Nepali Congress and CPN UML will be the main contenders for the party with largest number of seats in the HoR as well as some of the provinces. The CPN UML will remain a dark horse as it has a committed cadre base and support across the country, the stand taken against the Citizenship Bill may gel in the hills while apparently the party does not see the Madhes belt as a base. Emergence of large number of Independents is another disrupting factor. Personal ambitions of leaders as the CPN M Chair Dahal also means that he could swing his party from one side to another.
[Compilation and editing assistance by Harshita Panwar]