Nepal conducted national and provincial elections successfully on Sunday. Around 61 per cent of the people cast their votes, which is six per cent less than the local elections held earlier in May this year. There has been a relatively low turnout of voters in the election. The low turnout is likely to impact the traditional or resident political parties such as Nepali Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal—United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), and Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist CentreCentre)—CPN (Maoist) who have been running the show for more than three-plus decades.
The turn-out is likely to have severe consequences for the regional political parties, mainly from the Madhes Province (which lies in the Southwest of Nepal and comprises eight districts) and other districts in the southern plank. There are two major political parties in the region—Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) and Loktantrik Samajbadi Party Nepal (LSPN). The early trend indicates that some of them, mostly the LSPN, may have difficulty in registering themselves as a national party for which they need to secure overall three per cent votes. The second is to have one member directly elected through the first past the post system.
The Terai-Madhes region became prominent in Nepali politics after the movement commonly known as Madhes movements in 2007/08. Major demands of the movement, among others, were federalism, proportional representation, Madhes representation in the state organs and delineation of the electoral constituencies in Madhes based on population. The overall objective was to recognise and respect the Madeshi identity within the Nepali state. To a large extent, it was this movement that brought major changes including federalism and inclusion in Nepali politics for the Medhes. It was the Constituent Assembly (CA) election of 2008 that brought Madhes into Nepal’s mainstream politics.
However, some of the political parties that were there, then, do not exist in the same form today with frequent mergers and splits among the variants. Surprisingly, with the passage of time, many progressive agendas which they had promised in the past, have now been abandoned.
This is the reason, among others, why Madhes-centric political forces performed badly in the national election after 1999. Compared to the election in 2017, Madhes-centric political parties are likely to fare much worse this time around as was seen in the local elections. Another regional party named Janamat Party founded in 2019 is emerging as a new force, but it is unlikely to have a significant presence in the region so soon. Instead, the mainstream parties like the NC and CPN-UML, have hijacked not just the political space but also the political agenda of the Madhes, including the issues of citizenship and inclusion. In contrast, Madhes-centric political forces who were once touted as messiah in the region have had to align with them for their own survival.
No doubt, as explained earlier, political parties coming from Madhes were instrumental in bringing about major changes and establishing major discourse in Nepal’s political landscape. The question is what has led to their relative decline so soon. In hindsight, part of the problem is that most of these regional parties were established on the basis of grievances meted out against the people residing in Terai-Madesh provinces by the Kathmandu ruling class. But over time these very forces have turned grievances into greed and played ball with the national parties. They started forming alliances for that purpose. In the process, they not only ditched Madhesi citizens but also the agendas which they had once championed. However, some of the demands of the Madhes were addressed by the Nepali state and issues related to citizenship are already under discussion. In fact, over the last couple of years, the Nepali state is working hard to include Madhesh and people in the institutional life of the state. Yet, division among the Madhes parties has weakened the agenda.
Today, Terai-Madhes, as a region is one with the lowest human development indicators despite the huge amount of national budget being allocated. Large numbers of Madhesi youths are working in West Asian countries for lack of opportunities at home. The telling reality is such that while Nepal was voting, a large number of Madhesis were queuing up in the Tribhuvan International Airport waiting for their next flights abroad.
Madhes have produced more ministers than any other region during the last one-and-a-half-decade but none of them made a sincere effort to resolve issues related to the livelihood of the people. In contrast, they wanted to weaponise them for their own benefit. This may be one reason why national political parties are gaining ground and parties from the region are increasingly becoming irrelevant politically. The developmental void created by them has been fulfilled by other international agencies mainly from the Western and West Asian countries, where one competes with another for their own geopolitical interests. If the Madhes-centric parties really wanted to be relevant, they have to reinvent themselves and win the trust of the people, but it is unlikely to happen soon.
(The writer is a political scientist based in Kathmandu)