Bhanubhakta Dhakal’s performance as health minister at the time of COVID-19 pandemic, especially his ‘guests are at home’ excuse to reporters, looks set to cost the CPN-UML candidate his bid for reelection for House of Representatives (HoR) constituency of Morang-3.
Common coalition candidate from Nepali Congress (NC) Sunil Sharma, who had lost to Dhakal five years back, looks set for an easy victory while film star Rekha Thapa of RPP seems set to finish third.
The constituency includes ward numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9 and 10 of Pathari Sanischare Municipality, ward numbers 4, 5, 6 and 7 of Kanepokhari Rural Municipality, ward numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 10 and 11 of Belbari Municipality and ward numbers 1, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 of Sundarharaicha Municipality.
UML is the strongest party in the constituency based on the votes received at the ward level in the recent local election. The main opposition party received 37,410 votes in the constituency, NC 36,916, Maoist Center 7,373, RPP 2,121, and CPN (Unified Socialist) 1,855.
The ruling coalition including NC, Maoist Center and Unified Socialist together received more votes than UML alone but UML should be genuinely competing if not winning the race as all the coalition votes cannot be transferred in electoral alliance.
But Dhakal’s miserable performance as a health minister, especially that guest excuse at the time of pandemic, and allegations of irregularities in procurement of medical supplies at such troubled times for the people seem to have affected not just neutral and opposition voters but even UML voters. And they pledged to vote against him. Setopati also found a few traditional UML voters who accepted that Dhakal performed badly as health minister but still pledged to vote for him for the sake of party.
Setopati reached almost all the wards in the constituency and talked with 313 voters about the upcoming election, their preferred parties/candidates, the reasons for their preference, and the most important issues for them among other things.
A whopping 134 (43%) of them said that they would vote for NC’s Sharma, 56 (18%) for UML’s Dhakal, 33 (10.5%) for RPP’s Rekha Sharma, 17 (over 5%) for different candidates including that from Rastriya Swatantra Party led by Rabi Lamichhane and others. Seventy-three (23%) of the voters said that they had yet to decide who to vote for.
Sharma had given a close fight to Dhakal even when UML and Maoist Center had forged electoral alliance with promise of post-election unification five years back. He had secured 40,506 votes while Dhakal was elected with 42,413.
Setopati found many who had voted for Dhakal in 2017 but pledged to vote for Sharma this time. The 313 voters that Setopati talked with include 145 who had voted for Dhakal and 94 who had voted for Sharma.
Only 51 of 145 who said they had voted for Dhakal in 2017 pledged to again vote for him this time while 67 of 94 who said they had voted for Sharma in 2017 pledged to again vote for him. Thirty-seven voters who said they had voted for Dhakal in 2017 tellingly pledged to vote for Sharma this time. Setopati didn’t find even a single voter who had voted for Sharma in 2017 but pledged to vote for Dhakal this time.
Dhakal also seems to be losing a large chunk of voters to RPP’s Thapa. Fifteen of the 33 who pledged to vote for Thapa said that they had voted for Dhakal in 2017 while seven of the 33 are former NC voters.
Actress Thapa, who is lauded as a heroine with heroism, seems to be attracting a lot of attention in the constituency and gathers crowd wherever she goes for campaigning. Setopati found that all that attention, however, won’t be translated into votes and she will have to be content with a distant third.
Sharma, who is promoter of Nobel Medical College in Biratnagar, frequently invites controversy charging higher fees than that determined by the government from students at his medical college. But he seems to have worked hard in the constituency.
He went back to the constituency even though he lost the last election and has been conducting regular health camps in the constituency in the intervening five years. He has been providing heavy discount on treatment and even free treatment to patients from the constituency in recent times turning the Nobel Medical College into a virtual campaign office.
Setopati found many voters who pointed that Sharma did more in the health sector of the constituency despite losing the election than Dhakal who won the election and then became the country’s health minister.
Some voters still seem aggrieved with Sharma over their bitter experience at his hospital but those happy with what he has done far outnumber those with grievances.
Setopati found anger in voters with the major political parties in this constituency as elsewhere but that doesn’t seem to be enough to make alternative candidates genuine contender. And Sharma seems to be benefiting even in that aspect as eight of the 17 who pledged to vote for different candidates including Swatantra Party led by Lamichhane had voted for Dhakal in 2017.
Sharma faces the challenge of internal dispute inside NC over his role in the last general convention and the recent local election. Jayaraj Sanjog Limbu, a former NC general convention representative, has even filed rebel candidacy against him. But Limbu doesn’t seem to be attracting voters from NC or elsewhere in significant proportion.
Sharma’s fate wouldn’t be changed even if Limbu were to perform better. The perception of Dhakal’s bad performance as health minister at the time of pandemic is so strong that Dhakal seems unlikely to win even if he were to sweep all the undecided voters.