Nepal’s general election to the Federal and Provincial Assemblies took place on 20 November 2022. The second elections held after the adoption of the country’s highly controversial new constitution in 2015 appear to confirm a dangerous trend towards re-consolidation of political power on the part of historically privileged upper-caste minority groups, who stridently disregard the aspirations of the majority — namely Dalits (so-called “untouchables”), Indigenous groups, and women — to establish a truly inclusive democracy in Nepal.
Amar BK is a Senior Research Fellow at the Samata Foundation in Nepal.
Rajendra Maharjan is a columnist at the Kantipur National Daily in Kathmandu.
No single party secured a majority in the Federal Parliament. Out of 275 seats, the centrist Nepali Congress (NC), the oldest party in Nepal, won the highest number, 89 (or 32 percent). The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist), or CPN (UML), one of Nepal’s major left-wing parties, became the second-largest force with 78 seats (28 percent). The Communist Party (Maoist Centre), or CPN (MC), which waged a guerrilla war against the government from 1996–2006, secured third place with 32 seats (12 percent).
The parties of the Right experienced a resurgence. The National Independent Party (NIP), a fairly non-ideological but right-leaning party formed just six months before the elections, became the fourth-largest party, winning 20 seats (7 percent). The National Democratic Party (NDP), a monarchist and Hindu nationalist formation, became the fifth-largest party with 14 seats (or 5 percent). Seven other parties, including a breakaway faction of the CPN (UML) known as the CPN (Unified Socialist), regional and ethnic parties, as well as five independent candidates won between one and twelve seats.
The election has significantly increased short- and long-term uncertainty affecting the everyday lives of most people in Nepal, as well as cast a shadow over the future of inclusive democracy in Nepal as a whole. The Communist parties, particularly the UML, Maoist Centre, and the Unified Socialists, who altogether secured a nearly two-thirds majority in 2017, suffered huge losses, losing more than 30 percent of their seats. The NC gained 40 percent more seats and became the largest force in parliament. While regional and ethnic parties faced significant losses, the monarchist and new parties increased their vote share significantly.
Slipping Away from Secularism
The results paint a bleak picture of Nepali politics, at least for the next five years. On the surface, Nepal seems to be heading towards political instability, as a hung parliament appears very likely. The larger parties will need support from many other smaller parties and independent candidates to form a government, giving them disproportionate power in any governing coalition. Given the last two decades of Nepali politics, we can assume that Nepal should expect unstable governments. We can also assume that the country’s established political culture of merging and splitting of parties and horse-trading will continue unabated.
Political instability is not a new phenomenon in Nepal. The country has had a number of unstable governments, even when a single party obtained a comfortable majority in parliament. For example, the CPN (UML) had an almost two-thirds majority in the 2017–2022 Parliament after merging with Maoist Centre. Yet this supermajority government collapsed in July 2021 before its full term expired.
The President of Maoist Centre, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known by his nickname “Prachanda”, was appointed as Prime Minister of Nepal on 25 December with support from the UML, NIP, NDP, and other smaller parties. Prachanda broke away from the coalition with the NC and joined an alliance with the UML.
Overall, the representation of Dalits and other marginalized groups in the current parliament is lower than in previous elections.
Prachanda has made a full circle within just four years. In May 2018, he merged his party with the UML and joined the UML-led government. In August 2021, his party split from the UML and formed a coalition government with the NC, through which his party contested the 2022 elections. Now, he has broken away from the NC coalition and formed his government mainly with support from the UML. Prachanda’s example illustrates the widespread culture of political opportunism among Nepali parties. Additionally, his government consists of parties with opposing ideologies — both monarchist and democratic, as well as federalist and anti-federalist.
On a deeper level, however, we find something far more troubling than the usual horse-trading and bad governance. For the election results confirmed and even emboldened Nepal’s dangerous shift towards a more regressive, right-wing, and exclusionary politics.
While regressive, caste-based politics is what makes Nepal one of the most unjust and unequal societies in the world, the current consolidation of this politics can be traced to 28 May 2012, when the first Constituent Assembly, convened after the 2006 revolution, was dissolved without drafting a new constitution. Despite having the required support in what was the most inclusive Nepalese parliament ever, the high-caste leaders failed to deliver a constitution.
Nepal then elected a second Constituent Assembly, which drafted the highly contested 2015 constitution while crushing dissenting voices, especially from marginalized groups. The 2015 constitution did not address Nepal’s deep-seated structural problems, particularly those of gender and social exclusion, various forms of inequalities, and governance, which fuelled the Maoist insurgency and the 2006 revolution. Instead, the constitution further consolidated the power of the dominant group — the hill-dwelling, upper-caste Brahmins and Chhetris.
Nepal’s constitution is the only modern-day constitution in which secularism is defined as state protection of so-called Sanatan traditions, meaning Hinduism and the caste system. The outcomes of the current elections are proof of the dominant caste groups’ enduring power. It is noteworthy that the Nepali Congress Party, the largest party in Nepal with deep ties to India’s Congress Party, chose to ignore “secularism” in its recent election manifesto — a step that should be concerning to secularists in and beyond Nepal and India.
Marginalizing the Marginalized
The elections themselves were more exclusionary than the past elections. The parties fielded a lower number of women, Dalits, and other candidates from marginalized groups in the first-past-the-post system (165 seats are elected through FPTP, while 110 are elected through proportional representation, or PR). The UML and Maoist Centre each fielded just two candidates from the Dalit community in the FPTP system, and Congress did not field any candidates from the community at all. Out of the 165 FPTP seats in the Parliament, only one candidate from the Dalit community, from the Unified Marxist–Leninists, got elected. No candidate from the Muslim community, who constitute almost four percent of the population, was elected through the FPTP, along with only nine women.
Because the constitution reserves 33 percent of parliamentary seats for women, parties compensated for this low number by nominating a higher number of women for the PR election. The constitution foresees no such parliamentary quotas for Dalits or other marginalized groups. One of the reasons for the parties’ low numbers of women, Dalits, and other marginalized groups in the elections is that most parties are controlled by a few upper-caste male Brahmin and Chhetri leaders. Additionally, there is a lack of transparency and internal democracy within Nepal’s political parties.
As of now, there are at least a dozen parties in Nepal that claim to be ‘Communist’ or at least left-wing.
Overall, the representation of Dalits and other marginalized groups in the current parliament is lower than in previous elections. Altogether there will be only 16 members of parliament from the Dalit community (including 15 members nominated from the PR system), although Dalits constitute 14 percent of the country’s population. There are just six members (or 2 percent) from the Muslim community in parliament, all nominated from the PR system. Indigenous nationalities (called Janajati) have better representation in parliament (67 or 24 percent members), but this figure is lower than in the previous election.
The election saw a further strengthening of upper-caste representation in parliament. Almost half of the currently elected members (131) belong to the Brahmin and Chhetri castes. The parties have adopted official as well unofficial rules to increase their representation in parliament. For example, in the PR system of election adopted to enhance the representation of women and marginalized groups, Nepal managed to have a quota for the dominant castes.
Right-Wing Resurgence and Capitalist Consolidation
The elections helped the right-wing parties to consolidate their agenda. The NDP, which aims to restore Nepal as a unitary Hindu kingdom, also achieved significant electoral gains. Although suffering from frequent splits, the party was able to gain this victory partly because of its alliance with the largest left-wing party, CPN (UML). The NDP targeted those groups, especially the upper castes, who feel that their power and privileges are threatened by the constitutional provisions for inclusion, secularism, and federalism. Its victory is a clear indication of the rightward drift in Nepali politics.
The NIP’s success was equally significant. Although the party has yet to officially declare its political ideology, its leaders display public antipathy towards secularism and federalism.
Other political parties, including those of the Left, are also heading towards the right, as symbolized by the Unified Marxist–Leninists’ alliance with the NDP. One prominent monarchist leader, Kamal Thapa, contested the election under the election symbol of the UML. KP Oli, the president of CPN (UML), has invested significant funding and political capital into building Hindu temples, holding religious ceremonies, and promoting Hindu myths. While serving as Prime Minister, he organized a religious march from his residence in Kathmandu to a town in Chitwan, 200 kilometres away from the capital city, and installed statues of Hindu mythical figures Rama and Laxmana, claiming that Rama was born in Nepal rather than in India. The UML does not appear different in its ideology, culture, and practice from the Hindu nationalist NDP.
Just because Nepal’s social and political conflicts have subsided in recent years does not mean the underlying problems have been addressed or that people are not angry and frustrated.
Federalist and secularist parties such as the People’s Socialist Party Nepal led by Upendra Yadav, who emerged as a leader of the Madhesi ethnic group during the Madhes Movement in 2007–2008, and the Democratic Socialist Party Nepal led by Mahanta Thakur, another Madhesi leader, suffered huge losses. These two parties together won just 20 seats (7 percent). They lost not primarily because voters did not approve of their agendas, but because of the leaders’ self-centred, corrupt politics, which lacked clarity and commitment to what brought them to prominence, especially the issue of justice for the Madhesi people. Nevertheless, their losses also signify the side-lining of federalism and inclusion in Nepali politics.
One remarkable outcome is that a significant number of contractors, businesspersons, and industrialists were elected to parliament from different parties, including those that call themselves “Communist”. More than 20 industrialists and businesspersons and many contractors from Nepal’s prominent construction companies were elected. For example, Nepal’s only billionaire, Binod Choudhary, who was elected to parliament twice through the PR system, was now elected through the FPTP system. Nepal’s elections were already heavily influenced by the wealthy, but now the economic elite will have even more direct influence on policy.
Even the left-wing parties promote crony capitalism, as their leaders become interested in their own class mobility. In recent years, the left-wing parties have cultivated ties to the rich and business class and proven successful in taking any advantage they can. Left-wing leaders and cadres are increasingly becoming middlemen, contractors, and investors in schools and colleges, co-operatives, and hospitals.
The Decline of the Left and the Challenges that Lie Ahead
Last November’s elections attest to the decline of the Left in Nepal. One could attribute its losses to the number of splits it has undergone, but this is a lazy analysis. Although splitting seems to be a factor behind the losses, it is not the real cause.
Nepal’s Communist parties are notorious for splitting. The Maoists alone have split into at least six parties since they entered the peace process in 2006. The Unified Marxist–Leninists have undergone a similar fate since the 1990s. As of now, there are at least a dozen parties in Nepal that claim to be “Communist” or at least left-wing. However, the main factor behind their decline is that these parties have been moving further away from the interests of poor and marginalized groups. Although the parties themselves claim to be left-wing, socialist, or even communists, based on their practice one can fairly say that Nepal’s Left is drifting to the right. The common people in Nepal thus view the Left increasingly negatively.
Rather than implement their constitutional mandate to restructure society and the state and make the constitution more democratic and people-centric, the left-wing parties have backtracked on this agenda. They have failed to accurately diagnose the caste- and class-based contradictions of Nepali society. As a result, the hopes of revolutionizing Nepali society that many once associated with these parties have disappeared from the horizon.
Despite the Nepali Left’s increasingly right-wing ideology and practice, it still manages to win a significant amount of the vote — roughly 43 percent. There are many reasons for this, but one thing is clear: it is not the left-wing parties’ socialist ideology and practice that attracted these votes, but their accommodation to nationalism and Hindutva.
The November elections created fertile ground for the resurgence of highly regressive and right-wing politics. The ruling class in Nepal is unhappy with even small changes and intent on reversing them. Such a reversal already began under the “left-wing” government formed after the merging of the Unified Marxist–Leninists and the Maoists. Thus, we can only expect it to accelerate now that parliament is dominated by right-wing parties
That said, just because Nepal’s social and political conflicts have subsided in recent years does not mean that the underlying problems have been addressed or that people are not angry and frustrated at the state. Resistance from marginalized groups and the poor has been quieter, but not because the state has been more just or equitable towards them, but rather because political parties have co-opted leaders and activists on the one hand, while crushing dissent on the other. All the while, the state has grown even more exclusionary, backtracking on the gains made over the last two decades at an unprecedented level.