The Left Alliance’s decisive victory in the federal and provincial elections in Nepal brings the prospect of political stability to the country. The elections marked the culmination of the transition to democratic governance which began with the 2006 peace agreement that ended the decade long Maoist insurgency.
The 275-member House of Representatives is elected partly on a first-past-the-post (FPTP) vote and partly on a separate proportional representation ballot. In the FPTP election, the Left Alliance comprising the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) won 80 seats and the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist Centre got 36 seats, while the Nepali Congress (NC) got only 23 seats and the two Madhesi parties 21. Under the proportional representation ballot where voters indicate preference for a party rather than candidate, UML received 33.25 per cent of votes, NC 32.78 per cent, and Maoists 13.66 per cent. One-third of the seats are reserved for women while the proportional representation system is aimed to provide representation to ethnic minorities and indigenous groups.
The new constitution adopted in 2015 provides for a three tier federal structure with elected federal, provincial and local administrative bodies. The constitution was opposed by the Madhesi and other ethnic minorities for ignoring their concerns and dropping progressive legislation that had been part of the interim constitution. The Madhesi launched an agitation that blocked the main trade-transit points at the Indian border. The border blockade hampered the passage of all essential supplies to Kathmandu and the rest of the country. The five-month long blockade led to severe shortage of essential goods including petrol in a country still reeling from the effects of the devastating earthquake that had hit the country just months ago.
India-Nepal relations were strained as Nepali leaders claimed that the border blockade had the tacit support of the Indian government, which had been critical of the new constitution for not addressing Madhesi demands. The Nepal government incorporated some amendments to the constitution and promised more at a later stage to pacify the Madhesi and other affected minority groups.
The mood was set for the elections when the Communists sprang a surprise by agreeing to Left alliance of the UML and the Maoists during the usually politically inactive festive season of Dahain (Dusshera). The Nepali Congress was left to tie up with some of the smaller parties.
The Left Alliance focused on nationalism, stability, and economic development. The Nepali Congress was afflicted with internal divisions, poor selection of candidates and an inability to feel the mood of the electorate. NC did not have a coherent plan for future policies, and its leaders focused on warning the electorate that the Left Alliance would bring in a totalitarian system. The NC warning had little impact as the Communists had been accepted in the political mainstream through two earlier elections and two stints in government. UML leader, KP Oli had created an image of a nationalist leader who could stand up to Indian pressure while he headed the government during the border blockade. He had turned towards China for assistance, concluded a trade and transit treaty with Beijing as well as signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Nepal’s first Communist Party was formed in 1949; it went through several splits through the years, and in 1994, the CPN-UML formed Nepal’s first Communist led government; the minority government headed by Manmohan Adhikari had lasted about nine months. In 2008, following the elections after the peace agreement was signed, the Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda formed the government. He resigned within a year after a tussle with the President over his plans to sack the army chief. Nepal’s third Communist-led government was formed in October 2015 when veteran CPN-UML leader, KP Oli took over as Prime Minister. Oli resigned in July 2016 to allow Prachanda to become PM for the second time. Prachanda in turn gave way to Nepali Congress leader, Sher Bahadur Deuba under a power-sharing arrangement between them.
Communists are traditionally considered as pro-China, but the Maoists were not linked to Beijing, and were more closely aligned to Peru’s extreme radical group, Shining Path. But once Prachanda formed the government, Beijing opened ties with the Maoists, and invited Prachanda to visit Beijing for the Beijing Olympics.
The Communists are pragmatic leaders with experience in heading the government; they have spoken of maintaining a balance between China and India. It is for New Delhi to reach out to the new leadership in Kathmandu to build on friendly and cooperative ties. Nepal’s voters have clearly given their preference for stability and development.
But there are many challenges ahead for the new government, including issues of power-sharing between the two Left parties. Ensuring economic development is a major task in a country where chronic political instability has hampered economic growth and social development for decades.