SPEAKING FREELY Nepali voters choose a path less rocky
By Manish Gyawali
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The results of Nepal's Constituent Assembly elections are in and indicate voters have undertaken a major course-correction. The change has come as a surprise to many, not least a certain section of 'intellectuals' who believed that the 10-year-old Maoist rebellion (which they dubbed the ''Peoples' War'') was the greatest thing to happen in Nepal's history and who were confident that the hard left would cement its stranglehold on politics.
The Maoists, who became the largest party in the last elections, have been reduced to third place this time, well behind the two
largest parties, the centrist Nepali Congress and the slightly left of center United Marxist Leninists (UML).
Others had been more confident that the Nepali Congress would make a respectable following, and perhaps even become the largest party. But few had expected the UML, which had been ridiculed time and again as a directionless force, to make such an impressive showing. Indeed, after the last elections, it was generally argued that the Maoists would lead the left and the Congress would lead the remnants of the right. Baburam Bhattarai, the Maoists' chief ideologue and number two, made such a statement.
So what lies forward for the Maoists? Losers in democracies generally withdraw for some time in order to mull upon the causes of their defeat and to seek ways to avoid repeating the same mistakes. It was surprising then, to find out that the first thing the Maoists did after it was clear they were losing badly was to declare the elections fraudulent. This was all the more surprising because just before the results had started coming in, the Maoists had been upbeat.
However, in a country as poor and undeveloped as Nepal, political space for a party like the Maoists, who claim to represent the "people"" will always exist. Therefore, instead of getting overtly hung up over the results (which have been validated by international observers), they ought to think deeply about what they did wrong this time and what corrective steps they can take.
Many reasons have been suggested for the Maoists' defeat. Almost every day, an opinion columnist comes up with a new explanation, and it seems plausible. However, there are broadly four explanations.
The first is that the Maoists overestimated their own strength and popularity. Just before the elections, the Maoists had been given to increasingly grander boasts of their own popularity. Prachanda, the Maoists' leader, had told his supporters that they had the elections in the bag and could look forward to seeing him as the country's new president.
The second reason is that the Maoists had an increasingly incoherent economic policy. Immediately after winning the 2008 elections, Prachanda proclaimed that the time had come for the country to undertake an economic revolution similar to the political one that had just been undertaken. During the course of the same speech, he also alluded to the "radical" steps that would take.
Yet, the Maoists began to back-track almost immediately and by the time of their convention at the beginning of the year had completely abandoned the idea of having a peasant-led revolution, focusing energies instead on strengthening capitalism.
This appealed neither to industrialists, small businesspeople nor to the rural masses. Industrialists have never trusted the Maoists, even if they have at times coexisted uneasily with them. Small businesspeople have been subject to extortion and may be the Maoists' most ardent foes. The rural masses felt betrayed because they had expected greater subsidies and more comprehensive (read "radical") land reforms.
The Maoists, thirdly, also managed to alienate a crucial part of their own base - poor Brahmins and Chhetris - with their ideas of ethnicity. This is often given as the most important reason. Indeed, during the last elections, the Maoists managed to do very well in areas strongly dominated by Brahmins and Chhetris, like Baitadi and Darchula district in the far west of Nepal. They lost badly in those areas this time.
The fourth reason given is that there is no room in Nepal for ethnic or identity politics, and by risking so much on this, the Maoists were bound to lose. Supporters of this theory now claim to be fully validated, seeing as not only were the Maoists, who had comprehensively supported playing the "ethnic card", been defeated, but so had a whole host of other ethnic and regional parties.
There is an element of truth in all of these factors, but a more important reason for the rout, which encapsulates all of the above, may be that while there is scope in Nepal for a brand of politics that sits to the left of what the UML is offering, not much space exists for politics that is too far to the left. It is not just that the Nepali electorate has rejected divisive forms of ethnic politics; it is that they have rejected any form of extremist politics.
With its verdict, the Nepali electorate has shown itself to be well balanced and fairly non-radical. Voters seem just as ready to reject the radical right as they are ready to reject the extreme left.
A much-expected surge in support for the royalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party - Nepal (RPP-N) did not happen. The party obtained a little under 7% of the proportional representation vote and failed to win a single first-past-the-post seat. By campaigning on a narrow platform to restore the monarchy and officially revert the country to its earlier, Hindu, status, the RPP-N failed to gain the broader national base of support it could conceivably have had.
However, the RPP-N did well in the capital and some other urban centers according to the PR system - and this may have convinced its leaders that with more time and resources spent, they could do better elsewhere in the country in the future.
This may be a reason why the RPP-N has indicated that it will not become a part of the new government. It may be trying to convey to its potential voter base that it has a more pristine image by being uninvolved in petty politics. This may work if voters really identify with the cultural issues that the RPP-N has championed. On the basis of a single election result, one should not be so sure.
There is space for both the right and the left in this country, as long as they give up overtly emotional and divisive issues. For the left, that means ethnic federalism; for the right, that means the revival of the monarchy. The verdict that the electorate gave in 2013 is that it wants neither of these.
It trusts, rather, politicians of a moderate and practical bent, who will first bring the country stability and then provide it with some of the things that every country needs - development, education, employment and health services. It appears then that the Nepali public has chosen the path of evolution, and not revolution.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Manish Gyawali is a graduate of Kathmandu University and commentator on social and political evens on Nepal and South Asia in Nepali newspapers.