Nepalis across the country vote on Friday the 13th for municipal and ward councils, but its outcome may decide the fate of the governing coalition in Kathmandu.
Two mayoral races in Bharatpur and Pokhara are going to be especially crucial, and will test the durability of the 5-party syndicate that has been running the country since Prime Minister K P Oil of the UML was outvoted in Parliament last year.
The coalition is made up of strange bedfellows: the centre right Nepali Congress (NC) with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Centre), Communist Party of Nepal Unified Socialists (US), as well as the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) and the smaller Rastriya Janamorcha.
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Unity is fraying within this fragile coalition, and the need to field common candidates has not just widened the rift between partners, but also within the parties themselves.
Even though the coalition agreed not to compete against each other and divided up the country’s 753 municipalities among themselves, in only one-third of them does it actually have common candidates.
Final results of local elections will take at least a week, but it is clear that the outcome will be a referendum on national and provincial elections in November, and even on whether the coalition will remain intact.
The future of the coalition seems to rest on voting results mainly in Bharatpur, Pokhara, Kathmandu, Biratnagar and Dadeldhura. Even among these, it will be Bharatpur and Pokhara that will be decisive.
In Bharatpur, Maoist chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal has staked all for the candidacy of his daughter, Renu, the incumbent mayor. The local mayoral aspirant Jagannath Poudel from the NC is up in arms — not so much against the Maoists, but against his own party that tried to force him to withdraw.
Poudel refused, the NC expelled him, and now he is standing as an independent. Last week, coalition leaders including Prime Minister Deuba and Dahal addressed a campaign rally in Bharatpur in which Dahal went as far as to say that the country was “headed towards disaster” if his daughter was not elected. In Pokhara, the common coalition candidate is the CPN-US’s Dhanraj Acharya, after Deuba managed to convince his party’s Bimal Bahadur Karki to withdraw. But many NC supporters are campaigning against Acharya in favour of the UML candidate.
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In Biratnagar, the coalition’s candidate is JSP chair Upendra Yadav’s son Amarendra Yadav, and this has got local NC supporters all worked up in a city that has always been their party’s bastion.
Friday’s elections have brought intense rivalries within and between coalition members out in the open, and this cannot be a pleasant sight for Deuba and Dahal.
In fact, Dahal has already been hinting that he will blame the Congress if Maoist common candidates lose in key constituencies like Bharatpur. If the coalition candidates lose in a majority of municipalities, it is conceivable that the alliance will split and the Communist parties may coalesce for the next phase of elections.
Watching the clash within the coalition rather gleefully from the sidelines is the UML. The opposition party would like nothing better than to eaxct revenge on the coalition by splitting it. The UML has also forged a partnership with the Hindu-right RPP and the Moonie-backed Family Party.
Despite the names of the political parties, this election is not an ideological contest between the left and right. It is not even about evaluating the performance of the party candidates for the last five years, and questioning the decentralisation of corruption to local governments. In fact, it has become an exercise in selecting the best among the worst candidates.
For the UML, this election is not about furthering its electoral agenda but defeating Maoist and CPN-US candidates in as many municipalities as possible. And vice versa for the Maoists and CPN-US.
Rajendra Linden of the RPP is going all out to weaken Kamal Thapa’s RPP Nepal, and the JSP would like nothing better than to oust Mahanta Thakur’s LSP.
This local election is therefore more about defeating rivals within parties or those who have defected, than about issues like making Nepal’s cities, towns and villages more liveable. And this makes a mockery of the electoral process in a democracy.
Santa Gaha Magar