Harka Sampung was a migrant worker in the arid mountains of Afghanistan. He dreamt of returning to Dharan’s lush forests to uplift his hometown. The main parties did not give him the time of day, the media ignored him.
He persevered, showing he meant business. He was always there, draped in Nepal’s national flag to remove garbage, manage bus schedules, and improve water supply to neighbourhoods. Citizens took notice, his dedication and integrity went viral on social media, and he was elected mayor.
Now, the national media cannot have enough of Mayor Sampung. Together with new independent candidates in Kathmandu, Nepalganj and other municipalities across the land, their message is clear — you do not need a ticket from a political party anymore to be elected.
Still, the future is a challenge. The multiple crises these cities face took a long time to accumulate. It is the result of structural failures in governance over decades.
Problems like solid waste management, air pollution, toxic rivers, lack of water, decrepit roads cannot be solved overnight. But public expectation of these mayors from the public is high, and the main parties are waiting to prove them failures.
The wins of Harka Sampang in Dharan, Balen Shah in Kathmandu and Gopal Hamal in Nepalganj were natural, almost predictable. Public disenchantment with the established parties was so great that many defied the traditional vote blocks they commanded.
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Even since the Panchayat and the constitutional monarchy days, Kathmandu is used to expressing its disapproval of the status quo by casting ‘protest votes’ for unlikely or upstart candidates. By electing Balen Shah and Harka Sampung, voters were also rejecting the other choices, ignoring party loyalty or ethnicity as ballot criteria.
The local election campaign and reaction to results showed two types of disillusionment: political leaders within parties like the NC being convinced that their leaders took the wrong turn and undermined their party, and candidates not affiliated to any party that cashed in on the non-performance of established parties.
What the independents have shown is that a candidate no longer needs a party ticket to contest and win elections — at least for local governments.
Balen Shah has got all the media spotlight, but there are many other municipalities across the country where independents have won because they convinced voters that they can deliver better services.
Public opinion surveys in the past have repeatedly shown that at the urban or municipal level, most voters do not care which party a candidate is from as long as they show a capacity to tackle every-day problems of city life.
How these three independents as well as other municipal chairs and deputies handle the mountains of mess they have inherited from predecessors will be evident in the months ahead, especially as mainstream parties lock horns again in the run-up to federal and provincial elections in November.
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Already, there is talk within the Nepali Congress (NC) that the party paid a price for supporting Maoist-Centre and CPN Unified Socialist candidates. A rough calculation shows that the NC may have actually won more than 400 of the 753 municipal posts if it had fielded its own candidates instead of backing those from coalition partners.
Maoist and Unified Socialist wins in cities like Bahartpur, Pokhara and Hetauda put those two parties in a strong position for national polls in November. Now, there is talk of the Communist parties forging another electoral alliance for federal and provincial elections to undercut the Congress.
Despite the relatively good job she has done in Bharatpur, it is questionable if Renu Dahal would have been re-elected without Congress votes. Despite coming second in the municipal counts, the opposition UML did so despite having to run against five parties.
What Balen Shah, Harka Sampung, Gopal Hall and others are selling is the hope of Nepalis everywhere for better governance. They won because they promised proven delivery. Most candidates from the big parties have nothing to show for themselves.
The mayors who got re-elected in Bhaktapur, Lalitpur, were rewarded for their performance over the past five years. In the end, that is what democracy is all about, and we need to scale that up to a national level.
Looking at November, the Congress can benefit from the split in the Communist vote, but only if the coalition is intact and the left does not unite. If they do not learn from the rise of the independents, they could suffer a collective setback.
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