Triumph for Independent Candidates? - Transcript

Intro [00:00:00]

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

Hannah Geschweski [00:00:14]

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration to share expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Anna and I'm a PhD researcher in Human Geography at the Christian Michelsen Institute and the University of Bergen in Norway. In this episode we will discuss the local elections in Nepal that were held in May of this year and what to make of the impact surprising and unexpected results like the election of only 32 year old independent candidate Balen Shah as the new mayor of Nepal's capital, Kathmandu. And we will also look at how these results fit into larger political fractures and transitions in the Young Federal Republic. I am joined by Nayan, who is an independent researcher and a political analyst based in Kathmandu. His recent assignments include monitoring of the implementation of federalism in Nepal with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance and Political Economy. Analysis of Nepal's elections with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Nayan, welcome to the Nordic Podcast. Thank you so much for making the time and for being with us today.

Nayan Pokhrel [00:01:20]

Thank you so much, Hannah, for having me.

Hannah Geschweski [00:01:23]

So the recent local municipal elections of 753 local governments, including the Kathmandu metropolitan city government in the capital, were actually only the second local level elections since the promulgation of Nepal's constitution in 2015. And myself, having closely followed the vote counting process, which spanned several weeks in May, I have to say that things got pretty interesting. I guess one of the most talked about outcomes was the election of the previously mentioned independent candidate and political newcomer Balen Shah as the new mayor of Kathmandu. But then also the election of the only 29 year old Sunita Dangal as his deputy. Then also in other parts of the country, including the three sub metropolitan cities, Tarun and Janakpuri, independent and younger candidates pulled off some surprises. Which leads me to my first question. Nayan, I just said surprises, but where are these results really that unexpected, or was this part of shift away from traditional party candidates rather anticipated by a political observers? Or how surprised were you by the results?

Nayan Pokhrel [00:02:28]

Definitely. If you pick some individual races, you definitely see some very new, exciting results and trends for us who have been observing these elections and trends, we tend to look at it from two ways. One, in terms of the individual races with some significant probably bearing on the larger conversation around how these elections went versus the larger political trajectory. So as I indicated, in some individual sense, some of the results have been pretty surprising and most notable of which which garnered a lot of news attention and probably rightfully so, was a pretty spectacular and a very comprehensive victory for political novice and a newcomer who did have a very popular presence in Nepali society but didn't really have any prior organized political experience. So yeah, as you rightly pointed out, there are some individual races that are noteworthy for disruption of some kind of regular trend. But I think we should not forget that overall, by and large, if you look into the 753 results, those largely followed traditional political alliances and parties. So yeah, there are some interesting trends, but largely it's still the major political parties that have come out on top in the overall picture.

Hannah Geschweski [00:03:46]

Yes, that actually ties into my next question. As you said, the where some surprises among the election winners, especially among those that don't belong to any of the major political parties. There is, of course, Balancer in Kathmandu who will talk about in more detail later. But there's also, for example, Haji, the new mayor of Tehran, who has an independent candidate, was able to defeat the Nepali Congress Party candidate. But then, if I understand you correctly, these successes should not necessarily be interpreted as a sign of a larger trend away from traditional parties towards more independent platforms. Is that right?

Nayan Pokhrel [00:04:22]

Precisely. So Kathmandu is an exception in this new federal structure of government. So keep in mind that we adopted a very new system of governance in 2015. After much political changes of the past few decades, Nepal underwent massive, massive political transition and a complete system transformation. So we are still experimenting with a very new federal system of governance. So Kathmandu metropolitan City, which has huge resources, obviously historically has been very highly centralized. One of the only urban centers of the country for all of its modern history. It's a hugely significant place in itself. But constitutionally, Kathmandu is also one of the 753 local governments. Right? So in terms of our constitutional and legal framework, that's important. So they are local governments. They do have certain. Important rights of lawmaking and legislation making policies and implementing them. And also because the political culture in recent times, which I think you will have some follow up questions on that as well. Kathmandu was exceptional in the result. The other independent you mentioned, definitely Doron, was another unique case study which we might discuss later. But the other two you mentioned in January and yeah, they were technically not running under any organized political party banner, but those were veteran people with a lot of experience in mainstream politics. For example, the guy who won the for mayor was a long time Congress leader, so it was only because of political alliance that his party would not run him as a candidate. So he was popular enough and had confidence. So it was probably his political parties vote that he gathered. So I wouldn't really put that into the category of Kathmandu's results at the runs, for that matter. So the is a unique case. But Kathmandu, I think the mindset of the Kathmandu voter has been shifting in recent times. It is not only this election. So even in the last time we had some new political forces and two candidates in particular gathered a lot of votes, and in hindsight, if they had ran together in a common flat, who knows what the result would have been? So, yeah, I think it's a continuation of what I would like to think of it as a sort of hybrid, little middle class dominated voting culture in Kathmandu. That is very atypical if you think the rest of the country, which still largely votes along very deeply ingrained traditional political party lines, Kathmandu is that metropolitan city very different from the rest of the country. And the priorities of the voters tend to be different from what would be the voting issues in the rest of the country.

Hannah Geschweski [00:06:59]

So you just mentioned the voting culture. While, as you say, the victories of independent candidates, although still remarkable for sure, do not necessarily point to a weakening of the dominance of the major political parties in Nepal in general. I did wonder if these results indicate, at least in some part, some sort of weakening of the vote bank culture. Just to briefly explain, for our listeners not familiar with the term in Indian and Nepali politics, the term vote banks refers to loyal groups of voters from a single community who consistently support a particular candidate or a particular political party in elections. And the existence of such vote banks can make the outcomes of elections quite predictable at times. So coming back to the question, to what extent do the results suggest a shift away from this rather static voting behavior that's based on some sort of political loyalty that we've seen in the past? Or is this maybe also just the emergence of new vote banks?

Nayan Pokhrel [00:08:01]

The results do point to some very, very important, what I would call disruptions in the existing political status quo, if you will. Again, I briefly mentioned how we are in the pretty early stages of the implementation of a very new system. A lot of the roles and responsibilities of the three tiers of government haven't been clearly defined. The last five years have gone in some sort of like finding their own spaces, conflicts between particularly provinces and the federal government on one hand, and the lack of coordination between the three tiers because Constitution does specify certain exclusive rights or as you call constitutional jurisdictions for the three tiers. But there are also a lot of what are called combined jurisdictions, and there are a lot of issues where adequate laws have not been prepared for the smooth implementation of all the institutions in all three tiers. That has been delayed. So that's one thing that we are observing very closely as researcher of federalism. But politically, these results do speak pretty loudly about the overall frustration with the status quo. You have definite indications through other data points. You know, there have been a slight increase in the interest of the youth within from the traditional parties. I'm talking about the general results now. So the share of candidates under 41 is almost 40%. Keep in mind that we do have around 14 15,000 total elected representatives, including the ward and county level that does speak that there's new interest. And another big thing in Nepal is how the elections are being expensive. There's lack of control of how campaign finances are managed. There isn't the proper regulation. The electoral body isn't always capable of enforcing the standard laws that limit the expenses and stuff. But you have seen that it's not always the money that wins the election. Again, Kathmandu election is very much an exception in that probably most of the campaigns were done through this new media. That's because their voters respond to certain different messaging than the rest of the country. One thing that is very prominent for me, and my observation is the frustration with the existing. I think a lot of the political parties and their response to some of these surprising results have been we need to be careful because people are not always happy. And there's another major issue during this election was in a presence of strong anti-incumbency that happens in Nepal, which is there's always the party are the groups in power. They do not always have the best of perceptions or performances. Anti-incumbency is a regular political trend in Nepal, but you see that a lot this time that the local government because for the first time a lot of money and resources went because local governments could prepare their own budget, spend their money infrastructures and so many other sectors. Right. That both perceived and real corruption going to every corner of the country was also very much an issue that people voted on. And that's some warning signs. You have to see that in little details of the margins and what kind of candidates won and did not win. When did some of these larger national political alliances worked and did not work. So yeah, the results are significant and they do point to a certain thirst for change from the things as they stand. And that is interesting because we are nearing to bigger elections, right? For the two more tiers, the provinces and the important federal elections that are coming November. Some time these trends are people are thinking about what bearing they will have in the larger political equation and in the way that our implementation of federalism and the new system performs to better the service delivery and the development that we so strive for.

Hannah Geschweski [00:11:54]

That is very interesting indeed. I was also thinking about the upcoming elections in November, but guess we'll have to see. One thing that needs to be pointed out, though, I think, is that while there are some promising trends, not just in terms of independent candidates, but also, for example, in terms of electing younger candidates in a political landscape where age is still quite strongly associated with competence and respect. One thing the elections have not really been able or not at all been able to eliminate is gender disparity that we have seen in Nepali politics for so long. If I'm not mistaken, 98% of the chief posts, so at the mayor and at the chairman level were held by men in these elections. And while 91% of the deputy mayor ships and deputy chairmanships were won by women, the absolute number of female deputies is now even lower than it was in the 2017 elections. I was wondering, what do you make of this? And is it so that voters are willing to give up the party loyalty, but not yet that trust in male politicians?

Nayan Pokhrel [00:13:03]

That's a very key and very central question and one that doesn't often feature in this high octane coverage is about politics and election results because certain particular events and characters or leaders steal the limelight. And one sad thing about that is we do not reflect why these elections are happening in the first place. As I continue to focus, we are trying to institutionalize a very new system and it takes time. If you are a student of political science, you'll be aware of how these system changes take tens of years, sometimes even generations. Right? I think these certain reactions during the elections are common. We should also not make a mistake of reading too much into it because it one important step towards our larger goals of benefiting from the new system. One of the pillars of the new system is trying to make governance and representation more inclusive. That includes the historically marginalized. The reason we have federalism in the first place, People forget that federalism is a political project in Nepal, right? Obviously, in elections you think about services, your electricity, your roads, your access to basic education and health are very important, particularly for the local governments functions. But at the end of the day, we are also trying to make that process of governance and local politics and the political process more inclusive. You have followed Nepali society for a long time and you are aware the existing historical operations and divisions and marginalization that this new system tries to bring together. One example of how at the highest level of political decision making, our political leadership and political culture is still not in tune with some of these new changes that we've aspired for and institutionalized through the Constitution. Right. It is unfortunate that we had two, three party alliances at the national level, and that went around this law of mandatory, at least as you rightly pointed out, of the two mayoral and deputy mayoral position. At least one of them have to be woman. But if you are in alliance and two parties can. While only one candidate. That's how we have a lot of local units with both two executive positions as well. That is unfortunate. We at least had 94-95% of women as deputy mayors and vice chairs last time. I think that number has come in 70, which is a significant loss because all the deputy mayor position is not as influential as the mayoral position, but they do have some significantly important rights like monitoring development projects, organizing social organizations and all important, coordinating the Judicial Council. They have very central role in preparation of budget and planning. So when you do not have that, a lot of the women get left out. And in our last five experience, as limited as the success of this mandatory inclusion was, it was leading to some definite and significant positive changes. Having women deputy mayor made sure that service is more accessible for the women. The Judicial Council functions as much as they had challenges in understanding the roles and responsibilities for a while, but that allowed women to go for domestic violence issues that our political establishment is willing to manipulate. That is an unfortunate thing. I think a lot of these manipulations will continue to happen, but that's one of the unfortunate things about the present result is definite decline in the number of women representatives at the executive level.

Hannah Geschweski [00:16:35]

We'll have to see how this plays out in the upcoming elections. But now to zoom in again a little bit, let's speak about the candidate. Oh, well, no longer the candidate, but the new mayor of Kathmandu that we have mentioned quite a few times now, Balen Shah, because his rise and his eventual victory are really quite remarkable. He was born in Kathmandu in 1990. He's only 32 years old. And then he first came into the spotlight when he participated in the rap battle series, Raw Bars on YouTube as a rapper. And then he also became part of the emerging Nepali hip hop or so-called nip hop scene. And he's still actually involved in that scene. Also on TV, I remember I actually saw him live once in 2010, 11 ish at the rap battles in Kathmandu. And I guess at that time, I would not have thought that I one day read about him as newly elected mayor of Kathmandu. Balen Shah has a degree in civil engineering, and he also worked in that field for a while before he became interested in politics in 2019 2020. So this interest in politics is actually quite recent. And he only announced that he would run for mayor in 2021. And from the very beginning it was clear that he would not join any of the major parties and would remain an independent candidate. So. Nayan , aside from his musical talent and his experience in infrastructure planning and so forth, what can you tell us about. Who is he?

Nayan Pokhrel [00:18:00]

You described who he is is a popular celebrity in Nepal, but he came out of nowhere. If you were following the news in the early stages as the nation was gearing up for the elections. Every time Kathmandu does get independent candidates, they were beginning to get significant votes even in the last round of elections. I think the early conversations, the tea conversations around Kathmandu restaurants is likely to get significant number of votes, but not big enough to topple the two establishment parties. But keep in mind that the incumbent mayor of Kathmandu probably was at its lowest popularity to the point that the party was not confident standing him in the election again. One of the advantages is in hindsight that Balen had was also two major parties feeling pretty weak. And I think one of the analysis of the parties themselves, it also appears like Kathmandu was hungry for a change. I think he came up with a very nice, organized sounding, pretty simple sounding plan. He spoke to some of the very basic problems in Kathmandu and seem to have thought about at least all the major issues, at least to the point of making it a very nicely packaged campaign issue. Add to that, as I indicated before, that the mood of campaigning and medium that were used played instrumental role in making that phenomenon, because I do like to believe that this is a phenomenon that may or may not repeat, because this appears to be the wave election. And we know there are wave elections around the world, sometimes just one of sometimes it takes off and leads into something significantly different. So Balen, I think another third candidate probably would have won with a similar sort of mode of campaigning and that just touching that soft spot of the voters. Right now, it's becoming clear that that is a case study in itself. I think much will be studied about how he was able to pull off with very ridiculously little amount of money, just organizing some influential social media platforms, maintaining a very, very smartly thought out media strategy, very positive campaign, something that worked. And at that point, more than the substance, I think the need for freshness probably would have contributed a lot in electing him. But Kathmandu is a huge bureaucratic at the center of a lot of very serious and long term issues facing it like anywhere else. It's a bustling, huge, crowded and polluted metropolis. So many issues of basic services and one that is coming to the foray after he took off office. And the deputy mayor, as you mentioned, is also important in this conversation because although she does represent a traditional party, but I think it is the same way vote that Balen got, that she got in fact, she even had more impressive margin of victory. So she does have formal political background, but she is also very newcomer. And as far as we were aware, she was open to talking to different political parties before she decided to go with one. So she's not a traditional politician in that sense either. Two young people. It's very exciting for Kathmandu and some of the early noises and the freshness is visible. But as I was pointing to you, the big bureaucratic government that Kathmandu is controls billions of rupees annually. It's a complicated governance. So we are beginning to see some of that. Frictions come about already because the mayor and the deputy mayor, because that was one of the agendas he ran on as privatized waste management of Kathmandu Valley, which was getting really bad just around the election time with waste not being picked up for weeks because of various problems, and particularly with the location of the landfill site just on the outskirts and the local protest around it. Right. There has been some breakthroughs, but still looks like it isn't completely resolved. And again, he has promised certain things within a pretty quick frame of time. It's one thing to come through and euphoric wave election, but anyone in his position would face tremendous challenges. And there are whole questions about, at least for the time being, all the other people elected around him are traditional political parties. Some of them are old. Local government leaders have their own patron clients and the realities of Nepali politics, it'll be difficult. And I think that lack of experience might show in some of the places because it's a very complicated new system. There are a lot of checks and balances. There are a lot of lack of clarity about what their roles and responsibilities cannot be. For example, it's complicated because if there's a single in a road, if it's in a main road in Kathmandu, then it's no longer the jurisdiction of the government, the metropolitan city, because it goes to the road department of the federal government, something like that. Right. So people will complain if they don't see the results. I think it will not be very rosy. But as I said, the last mayor was pretty disappointing. You know, even if there are a few important things that they achieve, I think people will give them the credit for. And who knows, this might lead to something substantial that we might see in bigger and higher positions in the future.

Hannah Geschweski [00:23:28]

I guess, as you say, a lot will have to be seen in terms of also how he delivers on his promises, the many promises he made with regards to your really burning issues in Kathmandu, like waste management, like transportation, anti-corruption and so forth. It might be too early, but I was still wondering. I mean, he has now been in power for just a little over a month. How has he performed in these past couple of weeks? There are very heavy expectations on him. But has he so far lived up to them?

Nayan Pokhrel [00:23:57]

As someone who has travelled extensively around the country and has in all this process, at least through 2015, when we adopted a new constitution and a student of political science? I'm generally cautiously pessimistic. I say to myself sometimes I do not share the enthusiasm of a voter. Let me make it clear that I do not vote in Kathmandu. I don't have my residence here. But as an observer and as an analyst, whatever you want to call it, it will be complicated. It will be messy. And I don't think it will be an easy ride. Just some of these indications that already, you know, lack of maturity or pre-planning is reflected in some of these decisions. Recently, we had some cases of cholera that appeared in Kathmandu Valley and sort of rushed into some of these decisions. That was not very well thought out, like banning some of these street food vendors. It's a very much a question about livelihood. You want mayor of a metropolitan city are the decision makers of the metropolitan city to have a broader picture about making the city livable? Right. It is not just, you know, making the streets clean or making it shiny. So a lot of criticism appeared around some of these decisions, like making Kathmandu streets beggar free. And again, you have very reactive social media and a lot of scrutiny and a lot of expectations. So that probably will not always be helpful. As much as doing these executive meetings live has given him a lot of moral support, not only from Kathmandu, but people around the country because they are following him very closely. There'll be too much of a pressure. And I just know for a fact that under this new system, local governance is difficult and there's only little space for one individual to make all the system related and institution related differences. But again, there are some genuine opportunities to make some marks to solve some promises. So good luck to them. But yeah, it'll be challenging, it'll be messy and the indications are already there, I think.

Hannah Geschweski [00:25:53]

So now slowly coming to an end. And also to my final question, I mean, a lot remains to be seen and we can probably reconvene at some point to talk about political actions that are yet to come is potential successes and failures. But one thing that I think is already achieved is that he has been able to mobilize people and specifically young people in Kathmandu that have maybe not been particularly interested in local politics in the past. You could really see it. During his campaign, there were memes of all over the Internet. There were TikTok videos featuring him. There were real life campaigns, real life rallies that had quite high participation by local youth. So I was just wondering what you make of that. Do you think that this hype, we may call it, or this Balen Shah hype can last a bit longer and can get younger people involved in local politics in the long term? Does this indicate some sort of shift in terms of youth engagement when it comes to local politics?

Nayan Pokhrel [00:26:52]

There's definitely some of that. And as I said at the onset of our conversation, I am of the kind who will not read too much into it too quickly. We'll see. People forget easily in Nepal because some of these euphoric waves we've seen, even with political parties in the past. But as you rightly pointed already, there's been some youth mobilization, independent candidates mobilization, particularly, again, distinguished why Kathmandu makes more sense as this cosmopolitanism idea. Right. But yeah, it will definitely have spillovers because as I said, everyone looks to Kathmandu, everyone will look to balance and I think it will again do some surprises in the general elections, the provincial and federal elections. Again, Kathmandu will be interesting to follow because one of the biggest prizes with ten directly elected seats in the federal parliament and 20 in the provincial parliament, it's a big prize. One can expect that the violent wave will have more direct impact. And I think quite a few promising young candidates whose names have been around since the last local elections we talked about they're already in the running. That conversation is definitely started. They're getting more media spaces. But for the rest of the country, I still expect the traditional political alliances to hold. We might see changes in the power dynamics between one party or one alliance and the other, which we do have in the political sense. There might be some changes in the political equation from this electoral cycle. So there's definitely an interest around the youth. I told you even before this there's a greater. A representation of elected representatives at the local level. So we will continue to see that. And I think that freshness, that politics as usual will not work. There's some significant changes required in our day to day political culture that is real. It's just too early to say how consequential it will be for the system going forward.

Hannah Geschweski [00:28:49]

I guess we will have to keep observing with cautious pessimism or optimism. This actually brings us to the end of this episode. Nayan, thanks again so much for being with us. My name is Hannah. Thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast, which showcases Nordic collaboration in exploring Asia.

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