The aspect of Nepali party politics that caught our attention last month is a simple one at first glance: the number of parties that registered for the – maybe – upcoming election in November this fall. Aside from the number, however, there is little simple about it. 140 is the count of political parties right now, excluding those that decided not to participate. A huge number! It might not be surprising that the number has climbed that high – perhaps it’s only natural that more parties are formed as time goes by. But then again: how can there be so many parties – in Nepal?
Ask a scholar and many will say that political parties are meant to represent sets of values and goals in society: interests that many people have in common. That’s their classical role. The old social-democratic parties of Europe, for instance, represented the interests of the “working class”, conservative parties those of the better to do, still others different segments. Many envisage that parties and their leaders should represent broader ideologies and policy goals. So, if that’s the role of political parties, what interests do each of the 140 parties in Nepal’s election represent: those of the “working class”, perhaps, or of the “farmers” or the “middle class”?Well, it’s well-known that many of the parties claim to represent an ethnic group. They claim to represent the interests of, say, the Madeshis, the Tharus, or the Dalits, to name a few of them. Indeed, in a country with over a hundred castes and ethnic groups, the number of parties can climb vey high once the lid is capped off the “ethnic” bottle. That’s exactly what has now happened! But there’s another aspect. If you look at many of these new parties, it’s also clear that many only have regional support: their political or electoral basis is chiefly in those districts where the respective ethnic group is biggest! The Madhesi parties expect votes where the Madhesis live, the Dalit parties where Dalits are concentrated, and the Tharu parties where the Tharus reside.
The number of parties, however, has also sky-rocketed because of another factor. Let’s call it factional strife. In fact, one party after the other has faced bitter inner division among their leaders ending up in dramatic conflict and splits. Nepali Congress, UML, the Maoist Party – almost all of the big parties – have long-since tried to undergo this type of division, breaking up into new and smaller parties at least once. Leaders have clashed – each with their own network of supporters in tow – and parties have divided. Quite strikingly, many of the new “ethnic” parties have gone through the exact same process. As a result, many parties have been formed in the name of the same ethnic group: just look at the growth in the number of Madhesi parties or Tharu parties!
What are the factional clashes that cause Nepal’s parties to divide about. Ideology, perhaps? Rarely so. Most will tell you they are about power. Ambitious party leaders – some with a national platform, many with merely regional or ethnic support – clash in disputes over positions and influence. They often find no other way than to break away and form new parties. These leaders usually have hopeful supporters in their back – some ready to collect votes, others invested with their money – and all of them with their eyes on power: on the positions at the center and the benefits these can yield. Naturally, in this political climate, the number of parties has to climb!We ask again: what interests do all these parties actually represent? Well, it depends on who you ask. Some would say that they are indeed the result of leaders responding to the “grievances of the people”. Others might suggest that they have simply emerged as elite figures and their coteries are trying to get a share in power. Well, no matter the true interests represented by Nepal’s different parties, there is one thing that the number “140” also makes us wonder about: how can so many different interests ever be negotiated? How can any compromise – let alone consensus – ever be achieved? Let’s just say half of the parties win a seat: how are they ever going to agree on anything? It’s as though all we have in store is a greater and fiercer power struggle!
Finally, what’s the number of parties going to be in elections later on: 175, perhaps, or maybe 200? Well, the more aspiring leaders are disgruntled, and the more resources they have to enter the power struggle, the higher the number will likely be. But why look that far ahead indeed – let’s see if there will be an election in November at all! Several parties have boycotted the election already – including a Maoist break-away party – urging others to follow suit, and with so many parties in Nepal, who’s to tell what an election will bring. We find it hard to eye a more stable political situation. Or are we too pessimistic? Well, for most locals, all you can do is to wait and see.