As details about various election campaigns trickle in from across the country, one thing is becoming absolutely clear:
voters are first assessing their candidate’s individual capacity, before considering the candidate’s party affiliation.The vast majority of candidates contesting under direct representation are unlikely to be elected simply on the basis of their party affiliation. They will be measured on individual merit.
Voters are looking closely at the personal and leadership qualities in their candidates. In election interactions across rural and urban constituencies, voters are asking candidates about their personal vision, their commitments, their goals and aspirations. Except in case of the top rung leaders of the major political parties, voters appear to be relatively unconcerned about the position of the candidates on the larger questions of state and constitution. The concerns of voters are local issues. They want candidates who understand their issues and have the capability to address them.
Even long-time party loyalists are unlikely to blindly vote for the candidates of their party of choice, if they can find an alternate candidate with superior qualities. Voters are willing to cut across party lines to select candidates that they assess as having the best personal qualities.
Our current system of two votes, one for direct representation and other for proportional representation, is partly responsible for this.
This time around, voters are likely to make a clear separation between the candidate and the party. The vote for a candidate under direct representation will represent the selection of an individual. The vote for a party for proportional representation will be weighed by the legacy, history and ideology of the political party. In other words, the legacy, history and ideology of the party are less likely to influence the selection of candidates under direct representation than in the previous election.
This assertion can be quantified and statistically tested. One way to do that would be look at the correlation between seats won by party under direct and proportional representation. A high correlation—parties with a high number of seats under the direct also winning a statistically equivalent number of seats under proportional representation—would suggest that the assertion was incorrect; that party affiliation of a candidate did matter. The absence of such a correlation would validate the assertion that the voters may have in fact made a separation between the candidate and the party.
A second way to evaluate that assertion would be to statistically test if the stronger parties (i.e., the parties with the best organization strength, most money and deepest legacies) are able to capture the most seats under both categories of representation. By that hypothesis, stronger parties should come out ahead in seats won under both direct and proportional representation.
But in this elections, the strength of the parties are likely to predominantly influence seats they win under the proportional representation category.
The reason we need to cut deep into the election results beyond simply looking at who lost and who won is not merely academic. The analysis could offer meaningful insights into the prospects for a stable government and a constitution within the next five years.
A resounding victory, or clear drubbing, of a party shouldn’t be taken to mean that voters are conclusively endorsing or rejecting the party’s national vision. These elections are as much about the search for individual leadership as it about the search of a national ideological identity.
One of the clear undertones of this election is that political parties have failed. Voters feel betrayed and disillusioned with political parties for failing on good governance and constitution. That failure often seemed avoidable. Voters see political parties as instruments that harden and propagate differences, rather than offer a meaningful way to bridge differences and forge a national consensus. The search for individual leadership in the direct representation category is partly a rejection of the idea that political parties can be trusted with national leadership.
Approximately 122 parties have registered with the Election Commission and are contesting the elections in some form. Many political experts have argued that the number of parties is likely to shrink as they begin to coalesce, particularly as Nepal matures politically. But that may be wishful thinking. The Nepali polity could fracture even further with a proliferation of new parties representing narrow interest groups.
The major political parties have been unable to accommodate the full range of Nepali aspirations. None of them offers an inclusive and compelling vision of Nepal which appeals to a large cross-section of the country. As a result, political parties in their current role are no more than instruments for interest groups—a structured mechanism for pushing down an ideal and securing narrow interest; much like how a business entity would use its marketing capability to sell its products.
In their current form, political parties are a poor illustration of the inclusive, just and equal democracy that they promised to create for Nepal. Almost all the parties are tightly held by a few leaders at the top, as a cartel of sorts, with very little room for internal competition. The leadership is often intent on creating an individual legacy that automatically passes to their descendants or their kin without much regard for the democratic process. Most parties reflect a narrow interest, ethnic or caste group. Though parties have clear processes for internal democracy on paper, these are poorly implemented in practice.
If political parties don’t even know how to create lasting democratic institutions within their own organizations, how can they be trusted to frame a constitution for an equal, inclusive and democratic Nepal?
Over the last five years, political parties have done little to shape and evolve a unifying national identity within their organizations. Instead they have done little more than fight among and within themselves. They have largely created a mechanism for magnifying differences. A group representing a narrow interest is able to garner greater political mileage and visibility if it is able to stitch together a party organization that can represent that particular agenda.
Over the last two decades, political parties helped dismantle the pervasive network of patronage that previously existed through the monarchy, religion, social hierarchy and the state. But in the newfound space, they have themselves emerged as channels for patronage. They are now the new monarch, the new religion, the new social hierarchy and the new state.
It is hard to imagine a democracy without political parties, though it may be possible. But Nepal’s case is unique. The absence of a common national identity, its ethnic diversity and strong social hierarchy make it challenging to build genuinely inclusive and democratic organizations. Political parties are no exception. They were successful in coalescing broad-based support against a common enemy. But in the absence of that common enemy, they have been unable to evolve the basis for good, democratic governance.
The results of this election will be about the repudiation of political parties. Will we be prepared to listen?