In July, a new Facebook page uploaded a poster of six of Nepal’s top political leaders — Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and former Prime Ministers K P Oli, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Baburam Bhattarai, Madhav Kumar Nepal, and Jhalanath Khanal — with an accompanying text that said in English, NO, NOT AGAIN.
Since then, #NoNotAgain has taken off on social media with Nepalis urging other Nepalis to vote out the older leaders in elections to federal and provincial assemblies on 20 November. Collectively, they have been prime minister 13 times, with Deuba of the Nepali Congress (NC) alone holding the post five times.
The UML’s Oli has been PM thrice, Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal twice, former Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai and former UML leaders Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhalnath Khanal having assumed the role once each. Although the president cannot hold more than two consecutive terms in office, Nepal has no term limits for prime ministers.
The No Not Again Facebook page has amassed 39,000 followers and 32,000 likes since its inception. With open campaigning allowed from Thursday, the leaders have been on the counterattack on social media as well, some with slick videos.
The collective was formed after voters in local elections in May shunned the established parties and voted for independent candidates like Balen Shah and Harka Sampang as mayors of Kathmandu and Dharan.
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This reflected the disenchantment of especially urban voters with mainstream politics and career politicians, which has prompted more independent candidates to stand in November as well.
The online campaign has been putting the spotlight not only on the top leaders but other political figures as well: from pandemic-era health ministers who mishandled the Covid-19 crisis, MPs who have misused state resources, or those who have been photographed dozing off in Parliament. Also being crossed out are businessmen and high profile politicians who have been included in the list of proportional representation (PR) candidates supposed to be reserved for women and minority communities.
But as the campaign’s online pages amassed more following in the past week, public discourse around the movement grew, and so did attention from Nepal’s political leadership as well as the Election Commission (EC).
On 25 October, the Election Commission put out a statement accusing ‘false Facebook groups’ such as No, Not Again of ‘spreading negative propaganda and hate speech — defamatory expressions and misleading and hateful audio-visual content— about politicalparties, leaders, and election candidates.’ The statement said that the page had violated Nepal’s Electronic Transaction Act 2008, Election Act 2017, and the Election Code of Conduct.
The Commission stated that continued operation of such pages to put out audiovisual material would result in a fine of Rs100,000, or imprisonment for up to five years or both. Reaction in the public sphere and even from political leaders was savage and swift.
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UML dissident leader Bhim Rawal, who did not receive a ticket from his party to contest the election, called the Election Commission’s move contrary to the right to freedom of thought and expression and violated the Constitution.
“If one is not allowed to express who to vote for, or who not vote for, why doesn’t the Election Commission already declare Nepal’s top leaders as winners,” Rawal wrote on Twitter.
The NC’s Minendra Rijal, who likewise was not given a ticket by his party, said: “The idea behind No, Not Again is completely in line with our democratic values. The Election Commission’s decision, in this case, is irrational, and must be reconsidered.”
Former Election Commissioner Ila Sharma also weighed in on social media, saying that although it was valid to disagree with the movement, it did not violate any election code of conduct. “This is standard campaign messaging to which the election commission should not have given this much weight,” she said. “Liberal values are central to a democracy.”
Advocate Dinesh Tripathi then filed a writ petition against the Election Commission’s decision, saying it infringed upon the integrity and sanctity of democracy, and Nepal’s Constitution.
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For its part, the EC warned that the election could be challenged by ‘organised misinformation, disinformation and hate speech spread with an underlying political motive’.
Political parties, candidates, and party workers began open campaigning from Thursday, and they will be allowed to do so till 17 November. The main parties have released their election manifestos, and these too have been lampooned on social media and by cartoonists as being full of tall promises.
In their own speeches at the hustings, some mainstream candidates appear to be taking the challenge of the independents and rebel candidates from their own parties seriously. Others in both coalition collectives appear sanguine that they control the block votes of their traditional bases.
What is different this time compared to previous elections is that the ruling coalition and the opposition alliance have swapped seats to bolster their chances of winning. This has also meant that many NC supporters will be voting for Maoist candidates and vice-versa.
Such electoral alliances ultimately undermine democracy, political observers say, because coalitions are supposed to be formed after polls results are out, not before voting.
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