The local elections held back in May this year and the triumphant victories of independents like Balen Shah (Kathmandu), Harka Sampang (Dharan) and Gopal Hamal (Dhangadhi) was a dawning of the rise of independent candidates for any elections to follow. The victory of independent candidates in the local elections this year has acted as a trailblazing moment in history–a gunshot fired at the beginning of a race where finally the reign of long standing political parties has been contested and are given a bang for their buck (on campaigning for the elections).
With general elections so close, the distaste left in the voters’ mouths by the acts of previously elected officials is getting more evident as campaigns such as #nonotagain are getting more traction. The voters are disillusioned, they are tired of seeing low returns on investment (votes) they make. A survey conducted by the Asia Foundation in 2020 shows that the percentage of citizens who claim to not (fully) trust the political parties has steadily gone up–from 33.9 percent in 2017, to 40.5 percent in 2018, and to 43.8 percent in 2020. Additionally, the local elections had a voter turnout of 70.90 percent which means almost 30 percent of the registered voters didn’t vote, which is no surprise given the rate of disillusionment among voters mixed with a deadly combo of poor voter education and the absence of Right to Reject/None of the Above (NOTA). But the rise of candidacy of independent candidates has been a breath of fresh air to the general public as it reinstates the idea of democracy. It embodies the whole notion of democracy as voting for the independent candidates seems to show their dissent of all the eminent political parties.
The November 20 polls require the electorate to vote on four ballot papers–two separate for the House of Representatives (HoR) and two separate for the Provincial Assembly (PA). For the election of 275 HoR members, they will vote for 165 members from single-member constituencies via First Past the Post (FPTP) system, and they will vote for the remaining 110 members from a single nation-wide constituency by (party-list) Proportional Representation (PR) system. To fill up 550 provincial seats, the electorate will vote for 330 members through FPTP and 220 members through PR.
The presence of the electoral system of Proportional Representation (PR) itself is a huge discouragement for independent candidates as not only do the political parties have more reach and more power of influence over FPTP votes, but they also have the whole chunk of PR votes for themselves. Having a PR electoral system is not an issue in itself as it was introduced to counter the Achilles Heel of FPTP voting system such as increase in wasted votes, fear of gerrymandering and exclusion of small parties/minorities from fair representation but it seems almost counterintuitive as evidently the PR seats usually end up with dominant large parties. In the general elections of 2017, for example, only five of the 49 parties got allotted seats. Even Parties like Rastriya Prajatantra Party, Naya Shakti Party, Rastriya Janamorcha and Bibeksheel Nepal didn’t get seats as they did not achieve the quota of winning at least one seat in FPTP voting and crossing the three percent mark of total votes in PR.
This might render the voices of independent candidates to be obsolete as 110/220 of the seats are reserved for the “big players”. So the voices of independent candidates always have a risk of getting muddled by the dominant voices of the big parties, whether be in HoR or in Provincial Assemblies.
But this absolutely doesn’t mean that the big parties will get their way (not especially under the coalition format of governance), 165/330 seats are still up for grabs (for the direct election of candidates). The rise in popularity of independent candidates acts as a big wake up call to the select few faces. We’ve seen time and again that the power ultimately does rest on the electorates reminding the parties that the voters cannot always be lulled, bribed, swayed away with populist agendas or even threatened. The “party loyalty” running in families can only do so much.
Apparently, the best available options for the voters are the promising independent faces who vow to bring the change in governance that the public is desperately looking for.
The current voter base is tired of empty promises and turbulent government which has vested interests in its policy making and executive decisions. The voter base is disenchanted with the leaders of major parties as their problems have always been sidelined by the “representatives” that they had put so much of their faith in. The parties have time and again trampled on their faith and have always “represented” the ideologies which best benefit their personal/familial gains.
Apparently, the best available options for the voters are the promising independent faces who vow to bring the change in governance that the public is desperately looking for. The manifestos of the independent candidates don’t follow the cookie cutter. Agendas of independent candidates like Swagat Nepal’s vow to raise the issue of absence of None of The Above option in the ballot paper in the parliament, Shree Gurung’s vow to mainly focus on IT, tourism, trade and energy. The manifesto of National Independent Party (a party formed by independent candidates) vows to work for the making of a legislation that enables a directly elected prime minister and a non-political president, clearly demarking the rights between the federal and provincial structures. This shows to the general public that these new faces have with them promises of an achievable and stable future, with eventual prosperity of the nation in mind.
Anjila Shrestha is a researcher at Samriddhi Foundation, an economic policy think tank based in Kathmandu. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the organization.