May 30, 2020
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A Welcome Respite

The Nepali Congress' comeback ends the uncertain coalition era

A Welcome Respite
May 31 was a notable day for Nepal: its elusive search for a majority government finally came to an end. It mattered little that the new Nepali Congress premier, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, 75, showed signs of failing health as King Birendra administered the oath of office to his 16-member cabinet. Or that he had yet again failed to feel the electoral pulse: he didn't induct a single new face in his cabinet. But he's expected to make amends when he expands it next.

Indeed these elections, denied twice to the people in the five-year period, marked the end of a notorious "coalition era" that saw the 205-seat Pratinidhi Sabha try all possible permutations and combinations in search of stability. In all, six governments took office in five years as the nine-year-old democracy went into a tailspin after a 1994 snap poll elected a hung parliament. "Voters have proved the analysts wrong," an elated Narahari Acharya, election spokesman for the Nepali Congress, told Outlook. "After a temporary setback, the party's bounced back to claim its position as Nepal's most enduring political force." It got a good four percentage points more of popular votes than poll predictions. In fact, it pocketed 36.3 per cent of popular votes-close to the '91 figures achieved in the post-Jana Andolan period-mocking claims of voter disenchantment with the party that's been in office for most part of the nine years.

The Congress saw its support base erode in '94, when it finished behind a resurgent Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) in polls held amidst heavy infighting within. Conversely, it's the cpn(uml) which has seen a split this time. Some analysts argue the party would well have beaten the Congress again, and managed a better showing than its 68 seats, had it gone to polls undivided. The party lost as many as 45 seats to the Congress as its radical breakaway faction cpn(ml) chipped away the Communist votes.

But what hurts them most is their losses to the Congress in some of their impregnable seats, among them Kathmandu and the far eastern Terai district of Jhapa. Two Congress candidates, including former mayor P.L. Singh, won from Kathmandu. "cpn(uml) knows what went wrong. It would have got a comfortable majority had it been undivided," says Shushil Raj Pandey, of Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University. "I don't think the Nepali Congress was voted in for its popularity."

But the biggest surprise was the virtual rout of the newly-formed India-bashing Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist), whose 'nationalist card' made no impression on the electorate whatsoever. From 40 seats in the lower House, it has now been reduced to zero.

Political observers think it was the Indo-Nepal Mahakali river treaty that led to discontent and a split last year in the mainstream Communist party. Differences came to a head in the bitter battle that preceded the treaty's ratification. One faction, led by general-secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal, championed "pragmatic politics", urging his comrades to adapt to changing times and discard classic communist dogmas that regard India as a regional hegemon. The other group, led by Gautam, general-secretary of the cpn(ml), stubbornly refused to be drawn into "bilateralism with a hostile neighbour".

"The voters have rejected the cpn(ml) brand of politics," says analyst Sridhar Khatri. But its radical foreign policy pronouncements alone haven't contributed to the party's poor showing. It was also seen to be soft on Maoist insurgents waging a violent anti-establishment people's war.Compounding the problem was the party's poor organisation. Few expected the new party to match its parent party but many believed it enjoyed loyal following in some pockets including Kathmandu where voters have always been wary of India.

"I don't think the voters have rejected us," says Hiranya Shrestha of cpn(ml), who got a rare drubbing in the polls. "We just haven't been able to take our message to the people. We got six lakh (popular) votes this time. We'll get 60 lakh next time," he insists. In its post-poll analysis, the party's dismissed suggestions of abandoning its radical approach but its members privately concede the possibility of reverting to the cpn(uml) fold.

For the moment, Nepalis are more concerned about how the problems of the overtly partisan stance and corruption in high places are tackled. All major parties have their hands stained in blood. "In a way, the coalition era was a blessing," says NC's Acharya. "All parties took office turn by turn and voters saw they all changed colours once in office. No one needs to indulge in such theatrics now." That'll give Nepali lawmakers enough time for a mature debate. The electors, who stunned all analysis to register a 64 per cent turnout, deserve nothing less.

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