Nepal has held the general election in several districts on 26 November and will have it in the rest of the country on 7 December 2017. While one would like to believe all general elections are equally important for a country, that is not always the case. Like this one.
Because of its timing, political alignments, and potential for reshaping politics for the years to come, this general election is one of the most significant ones for Nepal in its democratic history.
This general election is taking place at a critical time in the country’s history. This is the first election for the normal parliament after the country went republic in 2008. Both the 2008 and 2013 elections were for the constituent assembly to write a new constitution, not for a normal parliament.
Therefore, this election, being held under the new constitution for the first time, marks the end the political transition started in 2006 and beginning of a new political era. This election heralds the end of a unitary state and the beginning of a federal country for the first time.
In this election, we have seen the kind of political alignment that we had never witnessed in the country. The main left-parties, the CPN (UML) and CPN (Maoist Center), have formed a coalition and indicated that it could lead to their merger after the general elections. Similarly, the Nepali Congress Party has aligned itself with the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party and to some extent with the Rashtriya Janata Party.
To remain relevant, smaller independent parties have formed their own coalition. They need to meet the minimum threshold — at least one directly elected member of parliament and 3 percent votes — to appoint members from the proportional representation category. Out of 275 seats, 110 will come from proportional representation.
This election will possibly shape Nepal’s future political course. First, the emerging political alliances indicate that they could evolve into two grand coalitions or two loosely organized political parties, leading a two-party state, like in Britain and the United States. It will inject some degree of stability in the political arena, which has been highly unstable and volatile most of the time since 1990, especially after 2006.
Second, the federal structure will make or break the country. If the political leaders make necessary compromises and accommodation to hold the country together, the country will follow the footsteps of India and other federal states, which had highly troubled past. For starters, India used to have a number of secessionist movements, in Punjab, Tamilnadu, and eastern states.
There will also be enough autonomy for states to pursue their own course within the federal structure and stay together, as again in India, Nigeria, South Africa, etc.
If the political leaders fuel the fire of identity politics, which has become visible and vituperative after 2006 more than ever before, the country may fall apart. Ethiopia, Sudan, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, most Central Asian countries have gone down this route and become independent from the larger entities. Provincial structures, mechanisms, and resources will help secession efforts, unless stamped down, as in Catalonia.
Third, neighboring countries — India and China — have deep strategic interests in Nepal, which they are trying to pursue by changing their approach in the new context. Both rivals fear that one could Nepal and its territory against the other.
Previously, China used the Palace, leaders sympathetic to it, and economic assistance to safeguard its interest. India used political fraternity as well as economic and cultural diplomacy/strong-arm-tactics, as necessary, to shape Nepali politics and policies in its favor.
But in the post-2006 scenario, the previous balance has been upset. For instance, the monarchy is gone. The identity politics in Nepal has fractured the old alliance-influence structures, and federalism has created its own challenges and opportunities for Nepal’s neighbors to influence its politics and policies.
China, worried about Tibet and other minority regions seeking autonomy or secession, has taken steps to increase engagement with Nepal. It has agreed to provide transit facilities for Nepal’s third-country trade, strengthened its contacts and assistance to the Nepal army, proposed closer road and rail links between the two countries, and increased investment in Nepal.
In other words, it has taken important steps to prevent Indian influence in Nepal from increasing in the new context.
India, on the other hand, has tried to keep its overwhelming influence unabated. While it has continued nurturing the old political fraternity and using economic and cultural diplomacy/strong-arm-tactics and economic and cultural leverage, it has also tried its best to impose its desire to have only one state in the Nepal Terai, which abuts India and which has people readily identifying as Nepalis of Indian origin.
The origin thing is spurious at best, but it seems to have been working as an effective propaganda tool.
For example, India tried to impose its desire to have only one state in the entire plains of Nepal by sending its Foreign Secretary to prevent the promulgation of the new constitution in 2015, used its diplomats to stir unrest in the plains demanding one-Terai, one state demand, and imposed an economic blockade when the Nepali leaders did not bow to its wish.
Any election can produce leaders that could change their countries or the world, but only some are designed to be that way. For instance, the normal elections produced leaders who have destroyed/shaken the system from within, such as Hitler, Gorbachev, Trump, and Modi. But Nepal’s current election belongs in the latter class, such as the first post-independence elections in various countries or the first post-apartheid election in South Africa.
However, the media and most political pundits have not focused on the historical significance of this general election. They seem interested more in which-party-will-win-and-which-will-lose-game. This speculative game makes an interesting reading, like a romantic story. But at the broader and deeper level, this election will determine the course of Nepal’s political and economic future, including the influence of its neighbors in the process.
So this election is way more important than other elections. It is not an election just for the normal transfer or reaffirmation of power. It will define how the power is structured and used in Nepal and whether Nepal remains territorially as we know it.