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Nepal elections: Young independents look to make big gains

Diwakar Rai
November 17, 2022

As Nepal goes to the polls, independent candidates say progressive platforms offer a desired alternative to traditional parties.

Balendra Shah greets supporters during a parade
Balendra Shah, an independent, was elected mayor of Kathmandu in MayImage: Sunil Sharma/Zumapress/picture alliance

After months of heavy campaigning, Nepal is set for general elections on November 20, with voters choosing candidates for 275 seats in the House of Representatives and 550 seats in seven provincial assemblies.

This election cycle in Nepal has seen independent candidates with nonpolitical backgrounds and newcomers join the fray, with victories by independents over veteran candidates during local elections in May signaling that voters are eager for fresh faces.

For instance, Balendra Shah, a 32-year-old rapper, was elected mayor of Kathmandu, defeating Nepali Congress candidate Sirjana Singh and becoming the first independent candidate to be elected mayor of the Nepali capital. Another victorious independent was Harka Sampang, 39, who was elected mayor of Dharan, a small city in the east.

Independents take advantage of voter frustration

The upcoming national polls will prove a bigger test of whether the platforms of young and independent candidates can resonate with voters.

Many independent candidates are trying to tap into frustrations with traditional parties by offering more progressive platforms focusing on job creation, anti-corruption, increased access to health and education, women's rights, tourism, and climate change.

Nepali political campaigners wearing orange garlands and red face paint
Nepali Congress leader Gagan Thapa (center) campaigns in KathmanduImage: Aryan Dhimal/Zumapress/picture alliance

Young people in Nepal grapple with high unemployment and criticize traditional parties for failing to create job opportunities.

A social media campaign under the hashtag #NoNotAgain is promoting independent candidates, while demanding replacement of what it calls "foolish and corrupt" leadership.

"Veteran politicians have long lost credibility as leaders. Voters' sentiment is more inclined to seeing new faces, be it from a new party or independent candidates," Bishnu Sapkota, a political analyst, told DW.

Nepal's ruling party since 2021 has been the center-left Nepali Congress, which currently holds the most seats in parliament. The two leftist parties, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), hold the second- and third-most seats.

"Old parties are offering nothing new in their manifestos. For them, it is only a document that you print before the election," analyst Sapkota said.

What challenges do young candidates face?

Although successful independent candidates will need to work with major parties to pass legislation, there is optimism that, if elected, newcomers can make a difference. 

"There's a buzz that independent candidates will never get a majority to pass any bill in Parliament. This applies to [traditional] parties, too. We all must work together. When independent MPs put forth an unbiased bill that is of national interest, I'm confident we will get a majority," Shree Gurung, an independent candidate from Kathmandu, told DW.

Nepalese youth activist Ranju Darshana told DW that she sees a huge amount of support for independent candidates in the election.

People wave holding Nepali flags
Ranju Darshana (l) ran as an independent during local elections in 2017Image: Skanda Gautam/Zumapress/picture alliance

The 26-year-old from Kathmandu is running for a seat in the House of Representatives as an independent.

"This is my second candidacy after the 2017 local election. Mental health, queer rights and women's empowerment are overlooked issues here that are some of the main agendas I have raised," she said.

Many young candidates share similar progressive visions, and aspire to enter mainstream politics during this election cycle.

However, young and independent candidates, who have yet to form alliances, also risk cannibalizing votes in competition with one another.

Kamal Subedi, a youth candidate from the newly fashioned Rastriya Swatantra Party, told DW that his party withdrew from a race in the  Dadeldhura district in order to support an independent youth candidate.

"Our party is aware of possible vote divisions among youth candidates," he says.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn