Nepal votes in polls coloured by downturn and discontent

Officials from the election commission work to set up polling station a day ahead of the general election, in Bhaktapur, Nepal, on Nov 19, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

KATHMANDU - Nepali voters cast their ballots for a new Parliament on Sunday, in a contest dominated by public frustrations over the Himalayan republic’s elderly political elite and anxiety over its teetering economy.

A revolving door of prime ministers – most serving less than a year – and a culture of horse-trading have fuelled perceptions that the government is out of touch with Nepal’s pressing problems.

Several younger faces are contesting for the first time, up against established parties whose leaders have strode the corridors of power for decades.

Although analysts expect Nepal’s entrenched political veterans to again dominate the next assembly, many voters have lost faith in the status quo and the mood for change is palpable.

“Every party took turns in government over the past five years and they did nothing,” said driver Chiranjibi Dawadi.

“My family has decided to vote for a new party this time. It’s okay even if they don’t look after us. Old parties didn’t either.”

Voters at a polling station in Bhaktapur on the outskirts of Kathmandu, on Nov 20, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Sunday’s elections are the second since a new Constitution was promulgated in 2015, ushering in a new political order after the conclusion of Nepal’s traumatic Maoist insurgency.

The civil war ended in 2006, having claimed more than 17,000 lives and prompting the abolition of the country’s monarchy, while also bringing former rebels into the government fold.

Since then, the former guerillas have alternated in power with another communist party and the established Congress in various coalitions.

But political instability has been a recurrent feature of Nepal’s Parliament, and no prime minister has served a full term since the war ended.

A constant balancing act has left governments of different stripes struggling to navigate the traditional rivalry between Nepal’s two neighbours, China and India, at a time of rising Western concern over Chinese-funded mega projects in the country.

Incumbent premier Sher Bahadur Deuba, 76, is serving in the role for the fifth time. The two other main party leaders are aged 70 and 67, and both have held office as prime minister twice.

Public disaffection with the trio has intensified, with the economy still in the doldrums from the Covid-19 pandemic, which devastated the vital tourism industry and dried up remittances from the huge number of Nepalis working abroad.

Inflation is spiking and the government has banned imports of several goods, including foreign liquor and televisions, to shore up its dwindling foreign exchange reserves.

Several younger candidates have thrown their hats into the ring this year, foremost among them the bombastic journalist Rabi Lamichhane, 48.

The charismatic former television host made his name with a muckraking news programme where he shouted at officials and ran hidden camera stings on corrupt bureaucrats, tapping into public frustration over endemic graft.

Mr Sushant Thapa, a 26-year-old student, said at a polling station in Kathmandu: “I had voted for old parties in the past, but I voted for new candidates this time.

“I hope there will be a new team in Parliament who will listen to the language of the public.”

But analysts say the nature of Nepal’s parliamentary system means that Sunday’s poll will likely result in a Parliament dominated by prominent parties.

Mr Guna Raj Luitel, editor of Nagarik newspaper, said: “It seems the public has stopped making expectations of big changes.

“It’s unlikely that there will be a majority for any single party. It’s again going to be the same power games and coalition governments.”

Nepal’s remote Himalayan communities make every national vote a logistical feat, and election commission officials have said it will take “four to five days” for the results to be known. AFP

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