New forces take on Nepal old guard in November 20 national polls

The general elections are being seen as a contest between the traditional parties and a new crop of young politicians.

Sagar Dhakal Nepal election
Sagar Dhakal is contesting the polls against Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba [Courtesy: Sagar Dhakal]

Kathmandu, Nepal – In the far western district of Dadeldhura in Nepal, Sagar Dhakal, a new candidate for the upcoming parliamentary elections, is busy breaking obstacles he claims were put by a “power force” to hinder his election campaign.

Dhakal, a 31-year-old engineer by training, is contesting the November 20 polls against the incumbent Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in the latter’s home constituency.

This is not the first time the two have come face to face: their saga started five years ago during Sajha Sawal, an interactive programme hosted by the BBC network.

In the show, Dhakal decried Deuba’s failure to run the country, an allegation that infuriated the prime minister, known for his eccentric behaviour. The heated brawl between them went viral as countless posts and memes were circulated, placing Dhakal in the spotlight.

Sagar Dhakal Nepal election
Sagar Dhakal is a 31-year-old engineer by training [Courtesy: Sagar Dhakal]

“This is not my constituency, but this is where I am contesting the elections from, and against a person who became the prime minister five times,” Dhakal told Al Jazeera.

“We need to get out of regional boundaries and contest elections from anywhere.”

Dhakal carries a syringe – his election symbol – and laments “the country and its politicians are really sick and need urgent treatment”.

The upcoming House of Representative (HoR) and Provincial Assembly (PA) elections, set for November 20, have seen an array of professionals from various walks of life as candidates entering politics.

A total of 2,412 candidates – 2,187 men and just 225 women – are contesting for 165 of the 275 seats in the House of Representatives under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. The remaining 110 members will be elected through proportional representation.

Similarly, 3,224 candidates – 2,943 men, 280 women and one candidate who identifies as the other gender – are hoping to become one of the 330 provincial assembly members under the FPTP system and another 220 through proportional representation.

Nepal election
A woman casts her vote during a mock election held to familiarise people with the electoral process ahead of the general elections, in Lalitpur, Nepal, on November 6 [Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters]

‘New wave’

In Lalitpur district, Toshima Karki, a doctor by profession, is contesting to be a House of Representatives member. She is affiliated with the newly formed National Independent Party, which has gathered a number of independent candidates for the upcoming elections.

“I experienced a lot of discrepancies working in the health sector, the root cause of it being politics,” Karki told Al Jazeera. “I am here to contest, win and reform basic sectors like health and education.”

The national elections are a contest between the old and the new, the traditional and alternative parties, and even career politicians versus the professionals. Many independent candidates and newly formed parties have emerged, breaking the long and strong hegemony of key political parties.

Some independent candidates secured their win in the local elections held in March this year. Among them was rapper Balen Shah who was elected as Kathmandu’s mayor, a victory that shocked the political parties who saw it as a sign that they were losing their hold over their constituencies.

There were similar mayoral victories in other cities as well, encouraging new candidates to join the bandwagon for Sunday’s elections. Political analysts say it has given many people hope and courage to contest the election, and how the trend shows people’s frustration with traditional politics.

Many new and popular faces, therefore, are contesting the elections either independently or by forming a new political party.

Civil society activist Devendra Raj Pandey thinks the arrival of new faces in national politics is a sign that people are looking for a change and have given up on the old establishment.

“For many many years, the political leaders have been deceiving the people in the name of democracy. Hence a new wave is here,” he told Al Jazeera. “If they win, there will be a new shift in national politics. But how much will it affect the current political behaviour is questionable.”

In Kathmandu, Ramesh Kharel, the founder of the newly formed Nepal Sushasan Party (“sushasan” means good governance) has been aggressive with his door-to-door campaigning.

Ramesh Kharel Nepal election
Ramesh Kharel says the traditional politicians have made too many mistakes [Courtesy: Ramesh Kharel]

The former police officer, popularly called a “supercop” by the Nepali media, resigned from his position, citing political interferences during his promotion to be appointed as the chief of police. He has an extensive following on social media and attracts a sizeable number of people to his gatherings.

“I am here to clean up the dirty politics. Politics is like business here, I want to transform it into social service and establish good governance. I feel an urgent need right now,” Kharel told Al Jazeera.

Kharel says that traditional politicians have made too many mistakes. “This time, people should displace these old leaders and vote for candidates who really care about the country. We cannot afford to give these leaders licence to loot the country any more,” he said.

“It doesn’t have to be me, I don’t have to win. Let the most deserving win to take this country forward.”

‘Time to gracefully exit’

Almost all the new candidates are unanimous in their demand for the retirement of old politicians and their takeover by a new generation of candidates. “They have done their part, they have brought us here. Now it’s time to gracefully exit and hand over the baton to us,” Karki, the doctor, told Al Jazeera.

Dhakal, who is taking on the prime minister, has been aggressive on social media regarding his views that the old guard should retire from politics. “Displace and replace everyone over 40 in national politics,” he says.

“How many times can one person be the prime minister?” he goes on. “This is the fifth term for our current PM. The same faces rotate and repeat. Enough is enough.”

A politically unstable Nepal has seen 10 governments since 2008 when the 239-year-old monarchy was abolished.

Nepal election
A woman casts her vote during a mock election held to familiarise people with the electoral process ahead of the general elections, in Lalitpur, Nepal, on November 6 [Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters]

But it has not been an easy campaign for this new crop of Nepali politicians.

“As a woman, it feels very difficult to carry out these campaigns. Many a times I have been discouraged by even the election governing body, who cited code of conduct and other issues,” she said.

Last month, the election commission cancelled Karki’s candidacy, saying since she was an elected board member of the Nepal Medical Council, a position of profit, she had violated election rules. However, the Supreme Court later restored her candidacy.

Last week, the election commission also warned Karki about using a bell – her party’s symbol – during her campaigning, alleging it was creating noise pollution. The poll body retracted its statement after some furore.

Analysts say the new parties and other independent candidates are likely to divide votes, making the contest uncertain even for parties who had a tight grip on what they claimed as “their constituencies”.

‘No, not again’ campaign

Many traditional politicians have rejected the rise of a new generation of leaders, claiming they are not their rivals. But they feel threatened by social media, where younger leaders have focused their campaigns. The pressure on them even saw the election commission, despite being an independent body, trying to curtail or kill many of such social media campaigns aimed at the old political parties.

In recent weeks, Nepali social media has been flooded with slogans such as “No, not again” or hashtag “#nonotagain” in order to appeal to the voters to not vote for the older parties. Deuba, the incumbent prime minister and some of his predecessors – Pushpa Kamal Dahal, K P Oli, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal – have appeared in this campaign, with posters and memes showing their faces along a list of alleged governments failures and other controversies.

Last month, the poll panel warned against the trend, calling the campaign a violation of election laws. But people expressed outrage on social media, calling the poll body’s action an attempt to curtail freedom of speech. Again, the Supreme Court issued an interim order in favour of the “No, not again” campaigners.

A desperate older guard has resorted to what observers have called public stunts. After rapper Shah was elected mayor of Kathmandu, the traditional politicians began eyeing the genre to appeal to youthful voters.

Last week, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) chief and former Prime Minister, K P Oli, went to a popular nightclub in Kathmandu to release his campaign song which was performed as a rap piece. Earlier this month, top Maoist leader and another former Prime Minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”, also released a rap song for the polls.

“Not so long ago, our music, words and style were considered anti-social and harmful to society.  But now everyone is endorsing it for their election campaign,” a Kathmandu-based rapper, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera.

To the new and independent candidates, Pandey advises unity and alliance. “Merely as independents, one can just work as a watchdog inside the parliament but to lead a change, a union of these new candidates is very important,” he told Al Jazeera.

“They should influence public policies. Hence it is in the best interest for the independents and the freshers to be organised to rival the existing establishments,” he added.

Dhakal agreed with Pandey. “Many independent candidates are joining forces and stepping in to form new parties. I applaud those attempts and I will make an effort to unite with the like-minded,” he said last week.

On Sunday, he joined the newly formed Hamro Nepali party.

Source: Al Jazeera