1-7 December 2017 #886

Political theories versus reality

Ongoing elections mark the dawn of federalism but candidates believe power will rest in Kathmandu
Shreejana Shrestha

Pics: Shreejana Shrestha
CONFIDENT CANDIDATES: In Kathmandu-4, Nepali Congress leader Gagan Thapa plays ping-pong with locals while campaigning on 26 November.

As Gagan Thapa walks into houses in ward number 30 in Maitidevi of Kathmandu (constituency number 4), everyone greets him like a celebrity. In return he says simply: "Hajurko suvekshya rahos ashirbad rahos” (Let me be blessed with your best wishes.)

Clad in a red and black chequered shirt, black pants and sports shoes (imported from London for the election campaign), Thapa knows how to connect emotionally with the locals. His shoes are almost torn from excessive walking for 19 continuous days, but his face is full of confidence.

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During his campaigning for the upcoming second phase of parliamentary and federal elections on 7 December, Thapa seldom urges people to vote for him. He won this same constituency in the 2013 constituent assembly election with 13,000 more votes than his closest rival from the CPN (UML).

A Central Committee member of the Nepali Congress (NC) and a former health minister, Thapa was projected as chief minister of province 3 but is just one of the senior leaders who believes that Kathmandu will remain the power centre after the elections, which are the final step in creating a federal Nepal.

“I was ready to contest for the parliament of province 3 but my party didn’t finalise the name of the chief minister before the election and I opted to fight from constituency number 4 for the central Parliament,” Thapa told Nepali Times in Maitidevi.

He agrees that coming years will be difficult in terms of decentralising power to the provinces. “The next five years will be difficult for us as the central government will try to retain its power, but the fight will go on.”

Thapa is pitted against Rajan Bhattarai of the CPN (UML), who is projected as the foreign minister if the left alliance leads the next government. His major promises are improving public transportation, developing tourism areas and open spaces and replacing existing vehicles with electric ones.

Bhattarai is sure that the new system won't be Kathmandu-centric and provincial governments will be given their full rights. "The Constitution has ensured separate rights to the central and federal governments, how can we retain power here?"

Bhattarai is taking a different approach than Thapa here. Many voters still don’t know him, so as he introduces himself he urges people to vote for his party. “This is not a personal competition between Gagan and me. We are our parties’ representatives and people will cast their votes on the basis of the agendas put forward by the parties,” he said.

CPN (UML) candidate Rajan Bhattarai introduces himself to a voter on 27 November.

Drinking water and road management are Bhattarai’s priorities for the constituency where the UML won all wards but two in the recent local elections.

While Thapa says he was prepared to run for a provincial seat, many other senior leaders are more reluctant, doubtful that the current system will be decentralised once federalism is in place. Sitting in a provincial parliament could put their political careers in the shadows, they believe.

Former NC lawmaker Radheshyam Adhikari remarks: “It is obvious for leaders to be attracted to the central government because nobody knows what kind of provincial governments are going to be set up after the election.” He adds: “The leaders know the power centre will be Singha Darbar and it will take time to decentralise power.”

The NC’s Bishwo Prakash Sharma, whose political base is Jhapa, was rumoured to be in line for the chief minister post for province 1, but is instead vying for a central government seat. Likewise, Mahanta Thakur of the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN) also filed his candidacy for Parliament from Mahottari instead of competing for a seat from province 2.

Madhav Kumar Nepal who earlier contested from Rautahat, has registered his candidacy for the central government from Kathmandu 2 while his colleague, UML leader Yogesh Bhattarai, is contending for the central government from Taplejung. However, analyst Pitambar Sharma doesn’t agree with leaders’ thinking. He says there is no alternative to decentralising power after the elections.

“The centre can’t come up with local development agendas once federalism is implemented. But looking at the ongoing campaign of leaders, it feels like the centre will do everything for the federal states.”

Sharma adds: “If leaders haven’t yet understood how the power centre will drift to the states, how will the people understand?”

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How decentralised is federalism, Kiran Nepal

Frivolous federalism, Bihari K Shresthas