Elections in Syangja-2 have traditionally been two-horse races between Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN-UML, but Rastriya Swatantra Party looks set to challenge both parties come November 20.
Having attracted many traditional voters of NC and UML, Tik Raj Gurung of Rastriya Swatantra Party has emerged as a strong contender for the House of Representatives (HoR) berth from the constituency.
Setopati reached different places in the constituency and talked with a total of 180 voters about the upcoming election, their preferred parties/candidates, the reasons for their preference, and the most important issues for them among other things.
Among them, 42 (23%) said that they would vote for Dhan Raj Gurung of NC, while 39 (nearly 22%) said that they would vote for Padma Aryal of UML. Rastriya Swatantra Party was not far behind, with 32 (nearly 18%) pledging their vote for Tik Raj. Three said that they would vote for other candidates.
Sixteen voters who had voted for NC in the past said that they would vote for Rastriya Swatantra Party. Similarly, 12 voters said that they had voted for UML in the past but would vote on bell this time.
Some voters said that they have yet to decide who to vote for. Fourteen of the respondents who had voted for NC and 10 who had voted for UML in the last general election did not want to reveal their candidate of choice this time. Forty refused to disclose who they had voted for in the past and who they would vote for in the upcoming election. Altogether 64 (nearly 36%) voters refused to reveal their choice for the November 20 election.
Whichever candidate manages to secure the votes of these undecided voters in the end appears certain to be elected from Syangja-2.
Youths attracted to Rastriya Swantantra Party in Waling Municipality have been campaigning enthusiastically for the party, soliciting votes from even their family members and neighbors. Most of these youths have returned home from foreign employment.
Uttam Khanal of Waling Bazaar in Waling-8 had campaigned for UML’s Padma Aryal in the 2017 general elections and for Krishna Khand of the same party in the local elections held in May. He said that he chose a new party as the old ones did not deliver on their promises.
According to Khanal, Rastriya Swatantra Party’s candidate Tik Raj is popular with the locals. Tik Raj had been teaching at the local Adarsha Secondary School and college for the past 32 years until recently. He is also a program presenter at Radio Andhikhola and Waling Television. He has also been involved in various campaigns including raising funds for the treatment of kidney patients.
Khanal said that Tik Raj quit teaching and filed candidacy for the election on their insistence.
Voters in Waling Municipality, which has the largest number of voters in the constituency, point at dust and potholes along the Siddhartha Highway as the major problem facing them. They say that health is another big issue as they have no choice but to travel to Pokhara even for minor treatment since there is no hospital in the municipality.
They do not believe that NC and UML will solve these problems. They still do not have full confidence in Rastriya Swatantra Party either, but they are willing to give the new party a chance to prove itself.
Locals expressed their ire over the sorry state of Siddhartha Highway through their votes in the local elections held in May. UML emerged victorious in Waling Municipality, traditionally known as a bastion of NC, while NC won in the UML stronghold of Galyang Municipality.
Voters have still been raising the highway issue, and the wave of youths joining Rastriya Swatantra Party in Waling Municipality is a result of that, according to Raju Shrestha of Bhumre, Waling-9. Eighty-two kilometers of the Siddhartha Highway, which connects Pokhara and Butwal, falls within Syangja-2.
According to Indra Bahadur Thapa of Waling, lack of a hospital is their second biggest problem. He said that pregnant women have to be taken to Pokhara for childbirth and it takes three hours to reach there even by ambulance. Some patients die on the way, but leaders do not care after they win election, Thapa complained.
Rastriya Swatantra Party did not seem to enjoy a similar kind of attraction in other parts of Syangja-2 outside Waling. The constituency comprises Chapakot and Galyang municipalities; wards 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 of Waling Municipality; wards 5-9 of Bhirkot Municipality; and Kaligandarki Rural Municipality.
Locals of Chapakot Bazaar area have chosen NC while voters in the rural areas of the municipality have supported UML. They said that they will vote for the party they have always supported.
Their main agenda is establishment of an agriculture college in Chapakot Bazaar. NC supporters accused the then minister Padma Aryal of halting the project, while UML supporters challenged the coalition government to advance the project.
Kaligandaki Rural Municipality has traditionally been a UML stronghold, with the party emerging victorious in both the 2017 general elections and this year’s local elections.
Most of the voters in Bote village said that they would vote for UML just as they had done in the previous general and local elections.
The Bote locals said that their biggest issue is lack of land ownership certificate and employment. They used to fish in the Kaligandaki and ferry passengers across the river before they were relocated a little above the Kaligandaki banks by the Kaligandaki A hydroelectricity project.
We found three supporters of CPN (Maoist Center) and one supporter of Mohan Baidya’s CPN (Revolutionary Maoist) in Syangja-2. The Maoist Center supporters said that they would vote for the party in the proportional representation (PR) election but had not decided who to vote for in the first-past-the-post (FPTP) election.
Places like Rambachchha and Ramche in Syangja have large Gurung populations. Most of the voters we met there did not reveal who they would vote for this time, but many youths were seen supporting Rastriya Swatantra Party.
Padma Aryal of UML was elected from Syangja-2 in the 2017 parliamentary election securing 35,142 votes. Her nearest rival, Gopal Man Shrestha of NC, had received 31,436 votes.
However, the ruling coalition is ahead in terms of votes received by ward chair candidates in Syangja-2 in the local elections held in May. NC candidates secured 36,806 votes, Maoist Center received 1,447 votes and CPN (Unified Socialist) got 233 votes. The three parties secured 38,486 votes combined, 3,677 more than UML. Rastriya Prajatantra Party got 511 votes.
So, it does not look easy for UML’s Aryal to win the election this time. She appears to have lost the goodwill she had earned in 2017, when she had also benefited from votes against NC’s Gopal Man Shrestha. Aryal has also been accused of not working for the development of the district despite being in government. Rastriya Swatantra Party’s Tik Raj looks likely to get the votes of such dissatisfied voters this time.
The contest is not easy for NC’s Dhan Raj either. Not all voters seem to be attracted by the anti-corruption agenda raised by Dhan Raj, who is contesting the FPTP election for the first time. In fact, Rastriya Swatantra Party has been more vociferous than him in Syangja in its stand against corruption.
Uttam Khanal of Waling said that Dhan Raj’s ideals would not hold once he is elected to parliament as he would support Sher Bahadur Deuba for prime minister again. Tej Prasad Bhattarai, an NC cadre from Galyang, pointed out the irony of having to vote for NC to save Deuba’s chair. He said that the party should have fielded local leader Bhagawat Prakash Malla instead of Dhan Raj, who is from Syangja-1.
Dhan Raj also faces another obstacle to his ambition. Lalgopal Aryal, who was an NC candidate for Galyang Municipality in 2017, is contesting the HoR election on RPP’s ticket this time. Local NC supporters fear Aryal could cut Dhan Raj’s votes. But none of the voters we met said that they would vote for Lalgopal.
Rastriya Swatantra Party has attracted more people in Syangja who had voted for NC in the past than those who had voted for UML. Independent-minded youths who have decided to vote for the candidate instead of the party are also openly campaigning for Rastriya Swatantra Party.
Tikraj could win the election if this wave seen in Waling in favor of Rastriya Swatantra Party manages to spread to Chapakot, Bhirkot, Kaligandaki and Galyang. But that possibility seems very slim for now.
UML's Aryal looks set to benefit from Rastriya Swatantra Party’s popularity among voters who are disenchanted with politics as most of them had previously voted for NC. But having lost her goodwill, she faces a tough task of winning over undecided voters.
It is not certain whether Rastriya Swatantra Party can translate the wave of support into victory in the November 20 election, but it certainly has managed to leave the two big parties with much to worry about.