Independent candidates rock Nepal’s local elections. What does it show about opportunities, challenges and messages?

Many see the victory of independent candidates as the result of people’s frustration with and lack of trust in traditional political parties. Is that the only case?

Nishan Khatiwada

  • Read Time 5 min.

Kathmandu: The independent candidates have rocked Nepal’s local elections-2022. Their challenge and opposition to the long-established political parties was perhaps the most impressive and striking feature of local polls this year.

A number of independent candidates have risen to lead the country’s municipalities and palikas–Nepal’s local government units which are also called the governments at people’s doorsteps as the locally elected representatives remain connected to the people.  

As many as 13 independent candidates won the top posts of palikas. Incorporating them, a total of 385 candidates bagged various posts at the local levels. In some large cities, such as Kathmandu, Dharan, Dhangadhi, and others, voters made a historic shift away from political party candidates toward independent candidates.

On Sunday, Harka Sampang Rai, a mayoral candidate in Dharan defeated Kishore Rai–a candidate from the ruling alliance (from Nepali Congress). Harka secured 20,821 votes while Kishore garnered 16,059. Starting as a campaigner against local problems, Rai also vied for the mayoral position in 2019, after the death of the incumbent mayor, Tara Subba. He could only garner 422 votes and secure the fifth position. 

Dharan Mayor Harka Sampang Rai

But this did not discourage him from raising his voice and exerting pressure on the concerned authorities to address Dharan’s problems. He campaigned for the election on his own, roaming from street to street with a microphone in his hand, and appealing for votes to change the fate of the city. A good singer and guitarist, Rai, has now succeeded in winning Dharane Junta’s trust. 

Similarly, Gopal Hamal, an independent candidate, won the mayor’s post in the Dhangadhi sub-metropolitan with 26,865 votes. In the 2017 elections, he had vied for the mayor’s position but was not able to win. 

In Kathmandu, independent mayoral candidate Balen Shah, a heartthrob of youths, who is also a rapper and structural engineer, won the election securing 61,767 votes against CPN UML’s Keshav Sthapit and Nepali Congress’s Srijana Singh. He, who contested with an election symbol Lauro, was the most popular among the independent candidates all over the nation

Kathmandu Mayor Balen Shah

According to some media reports, even in the places where there were no candidates contesting with the symbol Lauro, thousands of votes were cast for the symbol. This suggests how the influence of Balen was spreading outside the Kathmandu Valley as well. 

In Nepal, it is not easy for someone with a non-political background to compete for a coveted public position like a mayor. But these independent candidates have overcome all the difficulties to bag the coveted public position, by gaining the public’s trust and emerging as a ray of hope. 

Poor delivery, lack of development, and bad governance by the leaders of the established political parties have frustrated people all across the country, compelling them to seek alternatives. 

In Kathmandu, Dharan and Dhangadhi voters made a historic shift away from political party candidates toward independent candidates.

However, the popularity and a hard-won success also open the door to both the opportunities and challenges for the independent candidates. Experts say that equal opportunities and challenges are waiting for them in the coming days.  

Opportunities and challenges

Krishna Prasad Sapkota, a local governance expert, said this could be an opportunity to get connected and develop relations with all political parties for independent representatives. “As we all know political parties take to blaming each other and behave like rivals. The independent representatives are different from them and so they can gain the trust of all. There will probably be less prejudice and hatred,” he said.  

But there are challenges as well. 

“They lack organizations and are all on their own. Other representatives elected from the political process might hinder the operation of the local government and the overall development of the local level,” Sapkota added. “If the relations between the independent representatives, other representatives, and stakeholders are not sound, it will have adverse effects on the overall conduct of the local governments.” 

Sapkota believes that every winner is the representative of the general public. They are accountable to the law and the constitution and the larger public.

What is the message?

Many in Nepal see the victory of independent candidates in local polls as the result of people’s frustration with and lack of trust in traditional political parties such as the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML. Is that the only case?  

Jagat Nepal, a senior journalist, and writer, categorizes the independent representatives elected in the local elections into three groups. First, the rebel candidates who were denied tickets for the election from their respective parties as in Janakpur and who will eventually return to their respective parties.  The candidates who had contested the earlier election as independent candidates fall into the second category. The fresh candidates, like Balen Shah, make a new category. 

According to Jagat Nepal, winning independent candidates in some major cities and other local levels is the result of the bad governance of the political parties, unnecessary slogans, and populist agendas lacking actions. 

“It is the public’s reaction over position holders. And, if the political parties don’t correct their course on time, the trend of electing independent candidates will reach every nook and corner of the country,” he said adding that it is the reaction to the bad activities of political parties and a message that the public will seek alternatives if the political parties fail to live up to their promise. 

Even the political leaders admit that the wins of independent candidates carry a significant meaning. 

Dhangadhi Mayor Gopal Hamal

Arjun Narasingha KC, a Nepali Congress leader, wrote on Twitter, “Independent candidates have been elected in the Palikas in a dozen of places including Kathmandu, Dhangadhi, and Dharan. In a democracy, the will of voters is dominant in politics, and the will of taxpayers is dominant in economic aspects. The political parties should take this win as people’s will and awareness about the course correction and footsteps of time.”

Jhalanath Khanal, CPN (US) senior leader, mentioned while speaking at the lower house on Thursday that if they fail to proceed as directed by the Constitution, they will be left behind in history and many Balens will be born posing threat to the existence of the political parties.

Meanwhile, the winning independent candidates are being showered with praises and messages of congratulations from all sides. 

How long the winning independent candidates will be able to sustain their popularity will be determined by whether they will be able to perform as per their own promises and the expectations of the people of their respective constituencies. But for the moment, they have sent ripples through the established parties that their dominance can be challenged by an individual without affiliation with any political party if s/he has a clear vision to address the problems facing the people.