On Election Day on 13 May, I walked to a corner grocery store in my neighbourhood. The shopkeeper was all smiles as he showed me the blue dye on his left thumbnail. He had just voted for the rapper Balen Shah as Kathmandu’s new mayor.
What made him reject all the other big name candidates: the opposition UML’s former mayor Keshab Sthapit, or Srijana Singh, the wife of Nepali Congress leader Prakash Man Singh and the common candidate of the ruling coalition? Was he disillusioned with the main parties?
“Not really,” he replied. “I just like Balen. He talks sense.”
More than anything else, Balen has won over even earlier skeptics with his passionate, no-nonsense talk, and his refusal to demean his rival candidates. “The others were busy hurling insults at each other, Balen has been above that, he just puts forward his ideas and plans for when he is elected,” the shopkeeper said.
Read more: Local poll, national impact, Nepali Times
Many voters are enthusiastic about Balen’s clear-cut message that it is possible to make Kathmandu a livable and vibrant city. People in other municipalities say in social media posts that they wish they had a Balen, too. But even though the independent candidate has taken social media by storm, Nepal’s national press largely ignored him until his vote count started going up.
It was clear in the days before voting that the ‘Balen Phenomenon’ was not just a social media frenzy. Even people known to have aligned with established parties said they voted for the rapper and activist.
Nepalis seem to be looking to the future where there is a space for new ideas and new faces. But the media and the so-called intellectuals have long ignored this aspiration of citizens, tangling them in coverage of the blow-by-blow account of the power struggles between and within the main parties.