National miasmaIndependent party all set to overturn Nepal’s national politics in crucial by-elections
Perhaps no by-election in Nepal’s recent history has been as critical as the one on 23 April in Tanahu, Chitwan and Bara that will be make-or-break for the RSP, the independent party that is fourth largest in Parliament.
The RSP is fielding charismatic technocrats in all three constituencies at a time when disillusionment with the established parties is rife.
The polls are a three-way contest between the RSP, the Nepali Congress (NC) and the UML, with Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Maoist-Centre backing the NC candidates and nowhere in the radar.
In Tanahu-1, Harvard-trained former World Bank economist Swarnim Wagle defected from the NC to challenge Govinda Bhattarai in a contest to replace Ram Chandra Paudel, who was medevaced to New Delhi on Wednesday just a month after being elected president.
The UML has fielded former IGP Sarbendra Khanal, but many traditional UML and NC voters appear to favour Wagle.
In a speech in Tanahu on Wednesday, Prime Minister Dahal said: “I have fallen deeply in love with Deubaji, and will work with him to fulfil the aspirations of the people.” The NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba was also at the hustings, saying he would induct Govinda Bhattarai in the Cabinet if he won.
The stakes are high and campaigning has degenerated into personal attacks, including by NC leader Gagan Thapa against his erstwhile ally Wagle. For his part, Wagle has promised good governance and an economic turnaround if elected. However, if Wagle splits the NC vote, it can benefit the UML.
In Chitwan-2, RSP chair Rabi Lamichhane will contest his own vacated House seat against the NC’s Jeet Narayan Shrestha and UML’s Ram Prasad Neupane. Chitwan has always been a NC stronghold, but voters there are disenchanted with the party for joining hands with the Maoists.
For the RSP, the by-elections are a test of whether voters have stood by Lamichhane despite his citizenship scandal and allegations of corruption during his recent brief stint as home minister. Most RSP loyalists dismiss this as a smear campaign by the established parties and big media.
Judging from the crowds at rallies, support for the RSP does not seem to have diminished. However, political analyst Indra Adhikari cautions against looking at the RSP through rose-tinted glasses.
“The party has used exactly the same tactics as the established political parties,” she said. “The RSP’s support base is made of politically-informed, issue-based voters and they are aware of Lamichhane’s past.”
Meanwhile, in Bara-2, the competition will be mainly between JSP Chair Upendra Yadav and Shivachandra Prasad Kushwaha from CK Raut’s Janamat. Both aspire to fill vice-president Ram Sahay Yadav’s seat which he won in 2017.
Upendra Yadav lost in Saptari-2 to Raut by a significant margin in November, and is said to have pushed to make Ram Sahay Yadav vice-president in an attempt to get back into the House. He is also said to be eyeing a deputy prime minister nomination if he gets to parliament, which is among the reasons Prime Minister Dahal has not finished expanding his Cabinet yet.
The RSP has fielded former DIG Ramesh Kharel in Bara, and this will be a test of how well a non-Madhesi candidate will be accepted in the Tarai.
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1: A vaporous exhalation formerly believed to cause disease.
2: An influence or atmosphere that depletes or corrupts.
Nepal marked the first week of the new decade of the 2080s with a thick pall of smoke and dust that blanketed the Tarai and mountain valleys. Kathmandu recorded an Air Quality Index for particles below 2.5 microns of 450, when the WHO has set 20-35 µg/m3 as the threshold for air safe to breathe.
Widespread wildfires, a record-breaking heat wave in the plains, windblown sand from the Indian desert, Kathmandu’s vehicular emissions and transboundary industrial pollution are all to blame. But the biggest culprit is an unresponsive government which is too busy with business-as-usual politics to address this nationwide challenge to public health. Air pollution is a political disaster.
Candidates this week have been breathing heavily-polluted air on the campaign trail, but none of them has promised to clean up if elected. The RSP does have in its ranks Arnico Panday who is an atmospheric scientist and has the ear of the political leadership.
Read also: When the air is clear in Kathmandu