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Why are parties hesitating to fight elections on their own?

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Why are parties hesitating to fight elections on their own?

Personal interests of a handful of leaders have become the driving force behind alliance politics. The NC leadership, for one, feels only an electoral alliance will ensure the party’s continued presence in power

Under the current electoral system—a mix of first-past-the-post (FPTP) and proportional representation (PR)—chances are slim of any one party securing a parliamentary majority.  

Yes, in 2018, there was a single-party majority of the erstwhile Nepal Communist Party (NCP). But that was a product of a post-election merger between the CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Center).  

More than two parties must join forces in the upcoming parliamentary elections to later form a government. The two major parties, Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN-UML, have near equal electoral strength. This makes the Maoist Center the kingmakers. 

There is a risk of a non-ideological ruling alliance leading to government instability, bad governance, policy disparities and indecision. 

Political analysts say it is not uncommon for parties with similar ideologies to form an electoral alliance. But an alliance between the parties with diametrically opposite ideologies is something abnormal. 

“The Congress and the Maoists, for instance, differ fundamentally, with polar opposite economic and development models,” says political analyst Puranjan Acharya. “A government formed by these two parties won’t be able to deliver.” 

Acharya says parties with such divergent views cannot even formulate a common minimum program, let alone run the country. 

“Ministry-level coordination becomes too,” he adds.  

For now, the ruling coalition among five parties—the NC, the Maoist Center, the CPN (Unified Socialist), the Janata Samajbadi Party and the Rastriya Janamorcha Party—has agreed to retain their partnership going into the parliamentary election.  

One goal, say their leaders, is to fight against ‘the regressive force’, a not-so-subtle reference to UML’s KP Sharma Oli: The UML chairman had twice tried and failed to dissolve the House of Representatives during his term as a prime minister before his government was eventually thrown out by the Supreme Court. 

Oli remains a popular leader and the five-party coalition still sees him as a threat.

But analysts no longer see him as a threat to the constitution. 

“The five parties’ mission was completed when they banded together to unseat Oli,” says Acharya. “Now they should dissolve this unnatural alliance.”  

Maoist Central Committee member Hem Raj Bhandari disagrees. 

“We have to stay together at a time UML has already started discussing the relevance of federalism and secularism,” he says.

He insists that the current alliance, despite the divergent ideologies of its  constituent parties, is still indispensable to safeguard these constitutional provisions.  

But it is hard not to see that personal interests of a handful of leaders have become the driving force behind the current alliance politics. 

The NC leadership, for one, feels an electoral alliance is the only way to ensure the party’s continued presence in power. Ultimately, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba wants to hand over the reins of both the party and the government to his handpicked leaders.

The party leadership is also wary that the Congress could face electoral drubbing, as it did in 2017, if it contests the election alone.  

Many senior leaders in the party are also in favor of an electoral alliance, as they do not see themselves winning on their own. For instance, senior leader Ram Chandra Poudel is a strong advocate.

But there are voices in the NC that the party should contest the election alone and sit in the opposition if need be. They believe an electoral alliance will weaken the party’s organization in the long run. They cite the example of Bharatpur Municipality, where the party leadership decided to support the Maoist candidates for two elections in a row, causing much disenchantment among the NC rank and file. 

By entertaining alliance politics, Acharya says, the NC has become “an instrument to strengthen other communist parties.”

His observation resonates with NC Central Working Committee member Badri Pandey. “We have many aspirants for MPs and an alliance could again frustrate them no end,” he says. 

Other Congress leaders, however, see it as the only way a post-election Congress government can be formed and stability maintained both at the center and in provinces.  

Thanks to the five-party alliance, the Congress secured 330 seats in May 13 local government elections, a sizable gain from its 2017 haul of 264 seats. 

Meanwhile, the Maoist Center wants to weaken the UML, mainly its Chairman Oli, by forging an electoral alliance with the Congress. Maoist Chairman Dahal has a personal rivalry with Oli who betrayed him on a power-sharing agreement.

“Our chairman is clear that the only way to strengthen the Maoist party is by weakening the UML,” says a Maoist leader requesting anonymity.  

Inside the UML, too, many are in favor of forsaking any kind of alliance. Some leaders even think the party should remain in the opposition for the next five years and work to strengthen the party organization.   

But Oli’s ambition of becoming prime minister may drive the party towards a poll alliance. 

As alliance politics has become the order of the day, ordinary voters have been left frustrated. Major political parties and their leaders are only concerned about getting to power and voters cannot distinguish one party from another. 

What the making and breaking of alliances has done is to send the message that parties do not care about the country, says Acharya. “No wonder, people are making their frustration known by voting for independent candidates.”  

Again, if the major parties were to contest the elections alone, there would be a close competition between the NC and the UML. 

Consider the second Constituent Assembly (CA) elections of 2013, when there was no electoral alliance. The Congress won 196 seats to become the largest party while the UML came in second with 175 seats. The Maoist Center garnered 80 seats and became the third largest party in the assembly. 

But in the 2017 parliamentary elections, the UML and the Maoist Center forged an electoral alliance. Under the FPTP voting, the UML won 80, the NC 23 and the Maoists 36 seats respectively. Under the PR category, the UML and the NC secured almost equal votes, with 41 and 40 seats, while the Maoist got only 17 seats. 

Thus the Congress and the UML stand at equal footing without other parties’ support. But with both vying for power, they are unlikely to take the risk of entering the election ring alone.  

Bhandari, the Maoist leader, says communist parties in particular are going through an ideological dilemma. “They lack a clear vision and program to govern the country,” he says. “The constitution talks about achieving socialism, but the parties do not know how to get there.” 

An alliance without any ideological and political basis, Bhandari warns, is “always prone to failure, just like the Maoist-UML did.”  

“Unfortunately, there is no discussion in the party to chalk out an ideological course,” he adds. “The sole focus is getting to power.”