15-21 March 2013 #647

Up for grabs

The field is wide open in the next election for any party that can prove it can perform
Kunda Dixit

Now that Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi has been sworn in to head a new election government, everyone's focus will shift to voters.

But electorate is seriously disillusioned, apathetic, and couldn’t care less about the parties and candidates on offer.

The results of the Himalmedia Public Opinion Poll 2013 were expected and followed the trends of polls for the past 12 years, where Nepalis have been exhibiting increasing impatience with the behaviour of the political leadership. What is different this time is that the level of disenchantment is much greater and widespread than ever before.

In answer to a question asking them to name the political party that they would vote for in elections, nearly 55% of the respondents said they didn’t know, wouldn’t say, hadn’t made up their minds, or ticked ‘none of the above’. (See page 4-5) Most Nepalis seem to either not care about upcoming elections, or want fresh faces. The field is wide open for anyone with new ideas, integrity, and a performance guarantee.

“The results show that the outcome of the next election will be unpredictable,” says analyst and former Maoist Mumaram Khanal, “those who won’t vote or say they want to vote for an independent candidate may change their minds by election day if the parties can reinvent themselves.”

But that is a big ‘if’. The parties may want to examine the response to another question about the criteria voters will use to cast their ballots. Nearly half the respondents said they would base their decision on the performance of the parties or candidates and not so much on the ideology, platform, or slogans of the political parties.

Which is probably why when asked which political leader they would want as prime minister, the highest number of respondents (21%) answered ‘There is no such person’. All the other leaders are in the single digits and the most remarkable rise is of Kamal Thapa, leader of the monarchist RPP. Thapa has got more votes than veteran politicians like Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Sher Bahadur Deuba, or KP Oli. The NC’s Gagan Thapa, on the other hand, gets more votes than his boss Ramchandra Poudel.

Says civil society activist and former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kul Chandra Gautam: “The survey is a clear message to the NC and UML to shape up and stand up for fundamental principles rather than accepting second best compromises. If they play their cards right, they have a fighting chance.”

The most dramatic result has been the fall from grace of the Maoists. Baburam Bhattarai, who commanded 32% of votes in the 2012 poll this year fell to 6.2%. Despite high-profile populism, blatant corruption of his coalition partners and close family, appears to have tainted him. But analysts say the longer he is out of power the better his chances to recoup support.

Another reason for the prime minister’s slide could be his perceived pro-India tilt. An overwhelming 85% of respondents among those who felt there was foreign interference, named India as the one meddling. In answer to another question, 56% of respondents felt that the state of the country is getting worse with the blame going to incumbents.

The fall from grace of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who was the most trusted and popular political personality till the 2011 poll, has continued with his ratings now down to 3.4%. His party has taken a hit from its split last year, its excesses in power, and protection of war criminals.

Although all political parties have a negative image, the NC pips the others among those who had a preference for a particular party. This could be an anti-incumbency advantage and also because people believe the NC should lead the government because it is its ‘turn’. Respondents seem to prefer the dour Sushil Koirala not because of his personality, but because his candidacy may have untangled the political deadlock.

The other factor at play seems to be the continued unpopularity of ethnicity-based federalism, which was the main plank of the Maoists. The proportion of those who think this is a bad idea has stayed consistently above 70% for the past three years and this year hit 77%. Like previous polls, disaggregated data shows a majority of indigenous respondents reject identity-based federalism.

On the other hand, the proportion of respondents who favoured the Maoist-backed idea of a directly-elected presidential system grew from 31% last year to 37% this year. “This is proof that the people are sick of political instability and want a leader that they can elect directly,” explains political analyst, Manmohan Bhattarai.

The result that most highlights the mismatch between the media’s obsession with politics and the people’s concerns was when respondents were asked to name three main worries. They were: inflation, corruption, and unemployment. Politics came way down on their list, even though only through stability can the other problems be solved.

See also:

A wide open field

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