Murari Sharma: Nepal’s Most Consequential Elections

We have seen nothing like this in Nepal in the past. I am talking about the upcoming national and state assembly elections. These elections might make or break democracy in the country.      

The ‘make’ part is easy to figure out. The elections will officially end the long political transition, convert the country de facto from a unitary state into federal, and mark the endorsement of the Constitution 2015 by the Madheshi parties.  

The Madheshi parties had refused to endorse the new constitution until their demands were met.  They had asked for one state, and not more than two states, covering all 22 districts in the plains, but the major did not agree. So only 8 districts have been included in the Madheshi only State 2 (the states are yet to be named). 

Now the Madheshi parties have decided to participate in the national and state assembly elections, partly due to the fear of losing their workers and voters to other parties and partly due to Indian suasion.

New Delhi had serious reservations about the constitution and imposed an economic blockade on Nepal for failing to fulfill its demands. But the UML’s  electoral success in the local polls and its nationalist stance alarmed India, prompting the Madheshi parties to participate in the federal and state elections. 

In the local election, the UML emerged as the largest party although it became third in State 2, where its nationalist stance lost many voters. This failure prompted the UML to reach out to the Maoists and other left parties towards an electoral alliance, which will make them competitive in State 2 and strengthen the hold of left parties across the country.  

This triggered the non-left parties to work their own alliance to remain competitive. But the beginning has not been as good for the non-left alliance as it has been for the left alliance. At both federal and state levels across the country, the left alliance has managed to agree on the official panel of candidates.  However, the other alliance has failed to agree on a common slate in State 2.

In State 2, therefore, there will be at least a three-way contest among the candidates of the left alliance, Nepali Congress, and the Federal Socialist Forum-Rashtriya Janata Party, a mini-alliance. 

At stake are 275 seats in the federal parliament, 165 to be elected by the first-past-the-post method and the rest from proportional representation. The number of State Assembly members will be twice as many in the same ratio. Which alliance enjoys the better prospects?  

In the 2013 general elections and recent local elections, the left parties were able to win nearly 60 percent seats up for the contest. If that ratio holds, the left-alliance will likely be a clear winner in the upcoming national and state elections. However, the rebel candidates against the alliance candidates on both sides might not let the outcome to so straightforward. 

Whatever the outcome, the emergence of the left and the non-left alliance is a good step in the right direction. If these alliances outlast the elections, it could be the beginning of a two-party state, like in the United States and the United Kingdom, which will contribute to political stability and offer a clear choice for voters.

But if the two alliances fail to become competitive, the ‘break’ part will likely ensue, harming democracy and the country.  Democratic elections make government representative and check it if it fails to deliver or misbehaves. But they also create autocratic leaders on both left and right. 

For example, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were members of socialist parties in Germany and Italy respectively. They started World War II, which took six million lives across the world. Currently, several elected leaders are either autocratic or fret about not having the freedom to be so. They include the Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Donald Trump,  Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to name just a few. 

In Nepal, the prospect of something like this happening is real. If the left-alliance wins the elections comfortably, it will have two models of government to choose from. The Deng Xiaoping model and the Jyoti Basu model.

The Deng model — let me call it capitalism with a communist face — controls politics and gives entrepreneurs the freedom to invest and make a profit. If it wins a two-thirds majority in the federal and state elections, the left alliance will follow Antonio Gramsci’s advice and change things around from within. But it cannot go as far as converting Nepal into a one-party state like China and implementing the Chinese model.  

So the obvious choice for the victorious left alliance is the Basu model. The model — communism with a democratic face — keeps communists in power in a democratic country without economic development. Under this model, the Marxists converted West Bengal, once one of the most advanced and prosperous Indian states, into one of the most backward ones but kept Jyoti Basu and his disciples in power for nearly four decades. 

The trick was simple: On the eve of every election, redistribute resources from rich to poor through land reform, taxation, and unsustainable labor contracts to win the vote. While redistributing resources like this is the right thing to do to a reasonable extent, the Marxist government took the matter too far and drove the landowners and entrepreneurs from West Bengal. The result was reduced investment, economic opportunities, and jobs, hurting the state in general and the poor in particular, in the long run.

The objective of redistribution should be to promote development and equality in wealth, not stagnation and equality in poverty. For this, the pie must grow to give everyone a larger slice.  We have witnessed the inclination of Nepal’s left parties towards redistributing without enlarging the pie. For instance, several of the welfare provisions, including the old-age pension,  have been introduced, without commensurate measures to expedite growth under the left government.    

What is more, though both the UML and the Maoist have accepted multiparty democracy, for now, their ultimate goal remains proletariat dictatorship. If their alliance wins an overwhelming majority in the elections, will they remain committed to democratic freedoms and human rights as we know them? Will the non-left alliance be strong enough to prevent Nepal from being an illiberal democracy? Will India tolerate it? What will China do?

I have no answers to these questions yet. We will see whether the upcoming elections make or break democracy only after the vote, which will take place in two phases — later this month and early next month.