On Sunday in Gorkha, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, flanked by Narayan Kaji Shrestha and former comrade-in-arms Baburam Bhattarai, led a procession of supporters to file his candidacy for federal election on 20 November.
There was pomp and fanfare as Bhattarai, who currently represents the constituency in the House, swapped it for Maoist support for his daughter’s candidacy in Kathmandu.
Bhattarai had earlier announced he would not contest elections, saying he was taking a break from being “a lifetime parliamentarian”. So it was ironic that he handed over to another serial parliamentarian whom he had fallen out big time: Dahal.
The Maoist leader had previously contested from Kathmandu and Rolpa in 2008, Kathmandu and Siraha in 2013, and Chitwan in 2017. This time, he wanted an ironclad constituency to fulfil his dream of becoming prime minister a third time — and proved once more that there are no permanent friends nor enemies in politics.
The 5-party coalition formed to oust former Prime Minister KP Oli following the power struggle between Oli and Dahal ushered in an era of break-up and make-up politics in an election year.
The 2022 election has made partners out of once archenemies Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, splintered powerful communist parties, and brought Dahal and Bhattarai back together. And it has led to Nepal’s two primary Madhes-based parties switching allegiances between the coalition government and the opposition a day before the deadline for FPTP registration.
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This is the end of ideology. It is all about power and how to get there. Nepali politics was always a revolving door of same handful of tried, tested and failed elderly men. The revolving door is still turning, and multiple prime ministers are waiting for another stint — party credo, election agenda, or principles be damned.
It is a sign of the times that once-progressive alternative politician Rabindra Mishra now has a leadership position within the royalist right RPP, while Kamal Thapa of the Hindu-right RPP-N is set to contest the election in alliance with Communists, under the UML’s election symbol no less.
Nepal has been a three-party dictatorship since 2013. Now it is a dictatorship of three old men. Smaller parties aspire to be king-makers too, and want to strike deals with the Nepali Congress, Maoist Centre or the opposition UML.
There are no party primaries while selecting election candidates, and the process of selecting tickets is at the arbitrary personal discretion of the three honchos.
So, the NC’s Minendra Rijal and the UML’s Bhim Rawal of the UML were refused tickets just because their party leaders treat them as greater threats than candidates from other parties. Swarnim Wagle of the NC was reportedly refused a ticket because the First Lady doesn’t like him.
The Proportional Representation system was designed to include the excluded and marginalised. But the list is made up of close allies who needed to be accommodated, cronies and relatives. Only 9% of the candidates for direct elections are women, despite a Constitutional provision that parties have to field 33% females. The proportion of indigenous communities and Dalits is even lower.
Nepal’s richest men seem to have decided it is better to use the money that they used to donate to parties to run for elections themselves. The candidate list also included jailed individuals, which the Election Commission eventually rejected, as well as figures tainted with corruption.
A total of 2,526 candidates have registered their candidacies for the parliamentary polls, out of which 1,583 are from 57 political parties. Independents make up 37% of candidates for both federal and provincial polls, with some of them being rebel candidates denied tickets by their parties.
In all this, there is a silver lining. First-time voters and young Nepalis have begun to take an interest in the political process, mainly because of the rise of the independents. The outcome of this election will be decided whether they actually go to the polling booths on 20 November.
As with the independents who won mayoral races in May, young voters seem to think that the only way to clean up Nepali politics is from the inside. But vote banks, block votes by ethnicity and caste still count because the mainstream parties have the organisational structure.
An ageing and unprincipled establishment unwilling to hand over to a new generation has made it abundantly clear once more that any attempt to transform Nepal’s political mechanism from inside will be fiercely resisted. But something's got to give.
Read more: Rule of the lawless, Editorial