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Prospects, 2013

KATHMANDU, NOV 29 - The Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML leadership have advocated for a new election probably thinking that they are set to perform better than in 2008.  Intuitively this appears to be a reasonable assessment but historical trends do not support it.  

Predicting election is hazardous in most countries but more so in a country like Nepal where extensive electoral studies have not been conducted to identity and ascertain full range of factors and forces that affect the electoral outcomes. Nevertheless, Nepal’s past electoral history, particularly vote shifting patterns, could shed some light on how major political parties could perform if elections were to be held in 2013.

Elections are supposed to be unpredictable, and they are to a considerable extent, but the electoral outcomes could be often predicted within certain broad ranges over some electoral cycles.  For example, during the 1990s, the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML always emerged as the two highest vote receiving parties.  

The electoral history of the last two decades (1991, 1994, 1999 and 2008) in Nepal points out to two related trends. First, the differences votes received by each of the two major political parties during the three elections in 1990s changed by less than five percent (see table). The difference between the highest and lowest votes received by the Nepali Congress was 4.37 percent while it was 3.1 percent for CPN-UML in the three elections during the 1990s.  This suggests that the maximum vote loss or gain by the major political parties in next election could be around 5 percent.

Second, the party system largely remained stable during the 1990s with the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML remaining the two dominant parties and RPP emerging as a distant third party. The party system changed significantly only in the 2008 election with the establishment of three large parties and the rise of the Madhesi parties as king makers. This change occurred only after a sustained Maoist and Madhesi movement, regime change in 2006 and major institutional reforms thereafter. This suggests that under regular electoral competition for a decade or so, votes received by parties change but not to the extent to change the party system.

These two historical trends suggest that the UCPN (Maoist) might emerge as the largest political party if elections were to be held in near future because votes received by the three large parties may not fluctuate more than 5 percent in absence of major movement, crises or institutional reforms. Even if the UCPN (Maoist) lose 5 percent support, they may emerge as the largest party with around 25 percent of popular votes.  The only way the Nepali Congress or CPN-UML could come over the top could be if the UCPN (Maoist) loses the maximum votes possible based on historical trend (around 5 percent) while either the Nepali Congress or CPN-UML gains the maximum votes possible.  Even then, the outcome could be close. A more likely possibility is the emergence of the UCPN (Maoist) as the largest party, perhaps with a lower gap with the next party.

Some political commentators might argue that the Maoists would suffer a heavier loss due the split it encountered in 2012.  Political party splits affect electoral outcomes but the past experience suggests that the split may not be detrimental enough to prevent the UCPN (Maoist) from emerging as the largest party again. Even after a major split, the CPN-UML in 1999 received 30.74 percent of popular votes, comparable to 30.85 percent of votes it received in 1994.  Even though the breakaway CPN-ML did not receive a single seat in the FPTP electoral method based competition, it received six percent of votes in 1999.  Alarge chunk of central committee members and parliamentarians had split to split the party, which made a lot of noise, generating a high expectation toward it.  

The CPN-UML was able to obtain comparable votes in 1999 despite the split partly because it had consolidated its position by developing a progressive image through reforms, such as grants to village development committees and representation of women in VDC. The UCPN (Maoist) has similarly consolidated its organisation and expanded its base considerably. Since the 2008 election it united with several smaller communist parties, including Janamorcha Nepal led by Amik Serchan, CPN-Unified led by Navaraj Subedi and CPN (Unity-Centre Masal) led by Narayan Kaji Shrestha.  The UCPN (Maoist) may recoup its loss from the split through votes gained from mergers and unification with smaller communist parties and retain its 2008 votes, as the CPN-UML had retained its 1994 votes in 1999.

The Maoist could lose some votes from the disillusionment factor but the failure of the CPN-UML and the Nepali Congress to provide alternate programmes of change has allowed it to still be perceived as the change seeking agent among a large number of voters aspiring for class or ethnic/caste equality.  Nepal’s electoral history has shown that people have largely rewarded political parties that appeared as change agents whether it was the Nepali Congress in 1959 and early 1990 and the CPN-UML in the mid and later part of 1990s and the Maoists and the Madhesi parties in 2008. Further, even though individual cadres may have become inactive or quit over the years unlike the CPN-UML and Nepali Congress, the UCPN (Maoist) did not face significant mass exodus of large number of indigenous leaders and cadres after the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly.  

The argument is not that elections could be predicted on past electoral history alone but that the electoral history could provide valuable insights.  An election is influenced by many factors, forces, events and circumstances.  However, what is surprising in Nepal is that the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML are providing the UCPN (Maoist) an easy time by not competing in areas that matter to the masses.

Popular votes received by major political parties

    1991    1994    1999    2008

CPN-UML    27.75    30.85    30.74    20.33

CPN-ML    -    -    6    2.27

UCPN(Maoist) (1991 votes received by predecessor party)    4.83    Boycott    Boycott    29.28

Nepali Congress    37.75    33.38    36.14    21.14

Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP)    -    17.93    10.14    2.45

RPP-Thapa    5.38    -    -    -

RPP-Chand    6.56    -    3.33    -

Madhesi Parties (Nepal Sadbhavana Party during 1990s & all parties totaled for 2008)    4.1    3.49    3.13    11.55

Indigenous Parties (National People Liberation Party during 1990s and all parties totaled for 2008)    0.47    1.05    1.07    1.86

Posted on: 2012-11-30 09:20

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