Nepal’s alt-right falls off the map

With most of the votes in the 13 May municipal elections counted, all eyes are now on the results of Nepal’s major cities.

Nepalis are paying close attention to independent candidate Balen Shah, whose performance in Kathmandu’s mayoral race has challenged Nepal’s establishment parties, bringing in a new wave of enthusiasm, especially among young voters who might not previously have been politically engaged.Voters in Kathmandu punished mainstream parties for their lack of delivery.

However, the phenomenon of young people setting their sights on  young, ‘alternative’candidates is not  new. Balen Shah’s candidacy, campaign, and his lead in the 2022 election is a further amplification of the response by voters in the 2017 local election of the newly-formed alternative parties.

Nepalis began to explore the new political landscape following the success of India’s Aam Aadmi Party and its convener Arjun Kejriwal. A section of political and media personalities including Baburam Bhattarai and Rabindra Mishra led the way for alternative politics in Nepal, founding the Naya Shakti Party, and Sajha Party respectively.

These collectives as well as the Bibeksheel Nepal Dal made way for leaders like Ranju Darshana and Surya Raj Acharya, who contested the Kathmandu local and legislative elections respectively in 2017.

In the five years since the last election, these prominent alternative parties have gone through their own major upheavals—from mergers to splits, and re-mergers. 

The changes have ranged from party structure to ideology— as evidenced by Bibeksheel Sajha Party chair Rabindra Mishra’s shift from progressivism to a rightwing pro-monarchy and anti-federalism platform, which sowed the seeds of disillusionment among young Nepalis who had put their hopes in his party.

In short, even parties that started out as the custodians of social liberalism have fallen victim to the establishment, although not many could have predicted that it would take a mere five years for a political collective built on such seemingly strong foundations to begin crumbling. 

The local election has made it clear that falling back on reactionary politics can be harmful to the health of Nepal’s alternative political movements. Mishra, instead of figuring out what went wrong, has been placing the blame of his Kathmandu mayoral candidate’s poor electoral performance on external circumstances.

Even as there is a need for alternative ideas and political leadership in Nepal, elections are so expensive that they are not accessible to ordinary young Nepalis who want to serve the people. Who gets an election ticket is determined not by an aspirant’s capability and persona, but by how much money (which in most cases is ill-gotten) they are able and willing to spend on a campaign. Political parties overlook capable and educated young Nepalis to field candidates with shallow political understanding, but deep pockets.  

Candidacy in elections is also determined by how willing established party leaders are to make way for young and qualified political leadership.  A recent conversation with a young man who had a doctorate from Jawaharlal Nehru University, revealed that even though he aspired to run for mayor of his municipality, his party gave the ticket to a political contractor who had not even finished high school.

This columnist’s postgraduate research titled Plutocracy in The Apple Cart concluded that modern democracy is an aristocracy. Across the world and in Nepal, democracy is being held hostage by elite special interest groups. Indeed, even though Nepal conducts ‘democratically held’ elections periodically, the status quo does not change.

Even as the future of Nepal’s early alternative parties looks bleak, it does not mean that alternative politics has no place in Nepal’s political landscape. The 2022 local election is a loud and clear message that Nepalis disillusioned by the country’s establishment politics will cast their votes for independent candidates like Balen Shah in Kathmandu and Gopal Hamal in Dhangadi if given the choice. 

Nishnu Thing is a researcher, policy advocate, and roster expert for Policy Research Institute, a government think tank. 

Translated by Shristi Karki from the Nepali original published in himalkhabar.com

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