The biggest story of the general election of 2022 is the rise of Rastriya Swatantra Party led by Rabi Lamichhane.
The performance of the new party launched just a few months before the election will ensure that the country's politics will not remain the same in the coming days.
Setopati readers while reading this analysis must be eager to know how big Swatantra Party will be. How many seats will it win in the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system, and what percentage of votes will it get in the Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system?
There are also other important questions. Which parties will suffer due to the rise of Swatantra Party? Will the ruling coalition secure a majority? How will the other small political parties fare in this election?
Twenty correspondents of Setopati talked with more than 5,000 voters in 27 constituencies in Dadeldhura, Doti, Kanchanpur, Banke, Dang, Surkhet, Dailekh, Jajarkot, Rupandehi, Nawalparasi, Kaski, Syangja, Chitwan, Kathmandu, Makawanpur, Sarlahi, Dhanusha, Saptari, Sunsari, Morang and Jhapa districts for around two weeks leading up to the start of election silence on Friday.
This analysis will be based on the data collected by our correspondents, their conversations with the voters, and perception about the ground situation.
Talking about how big Swatantra Party will be, we know that it will not be easy to accurately answer this question armed with field reporting in just 27 out of 165 constituencies. But we have collected some data from those 27 constituencies and found some trends even within that limited data.
We talked with 5,161 voters and published field report from 21 constituencies. Just 4,031 of them revealed who they would vote for in the PR electoral system and others said that they had yet to decide. A total of 529 out of them said that they would vote for Swatantra Party which is 14.7% of those who revealed their preference.
So, will Swatantra Party secure 14.7% of votes in the PR electoral system across the country? We don't think so.
We found those pledging to vote on bell, the election symbol of Swatantra Party, in the major cities, and settlements around the East-West Highway. Its attraction does not seem to be as strong in the mountains, and high hills, and to the south of the East-West Highway.
Most of the constituencies we did our field reporting in are in the major cities and areas around the East-West Highway. Swatantra Party stands to get 24% of PR votes in the four constituencies of Kathmandu based on our field reporting while it swells to 29% in the two constituencies of Chitwan and one in Makawanpur.
It falls down to around four percent in three constituencies in Siraha, Saptari and Dhanusha while it again rises to around eight percent in four constituencies of Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari. It is around 16 percent in four constituencies in Banke, Dang, Rupandehi and Nawalparasi on the other hand. This shows that vote distribution of Swatantra Party will not be uniform.
We found Swatantra Party weak in the areas to the south of the East-West Highway especially in Madhes Province and Lumbini. Janamat Party led by CK Raut seems to be the choice for those frustrated and angry with major parties in Madhes Province and Lumbini.
Nagarik Unmukti Party led by Resham Chaudhary may also get such angry votes in Bardiya, Kailali and Kanchanpur.
Our correspondents also visited Dadeldhura and Doti districts of Far West and Dailekh and Jajarkot of Karnali provinces to gauge how popular Swatantra Party is. We didn't find significant proportion of Swatantra Partry voters even there.
But while saying so, we should also accept that bell has become a symbol of rebellion across the country, and the party can get some votes even in remote constituencies with no presence of Swatantra Party due to the attraction toward Rabi Lamichhane.
We project that Swatantra Party will get 5-7% of PR votes at the least and 10-12% at most.
Talking about its performance in the FPTP electoral system, we feel Lamichhane will be elected from Chitwan-2 and Shishir Khanal from Kathmandu-6 out of the 21 constituencies we have done field reporting in. Sobita Gautam is a stronger contender in Kathmandu-2 and so is Hari Dhakal in Chitwan-1.
The party's candidate Tik Raj Gurung was a little behind Dhan Raj Gurung of Nepali Congress (NC) and Padma Aryal of CPN-UML in Syangja-2. Tik Raj Gurung may also be in contention if the bell wave has got stronger there since we did our field reporting there.
Swatantra Party claims that its candidates Dr Toshima Karki and Biraj Bhakta Shrestha are also strong contenders in Lalitpur-3 and Kathmandu-8 where we have not done field reporting. They party's leaders also claim that they are strong contenders in Bara-2 and Nuwakot-2. We don't have any data to verify those claims.
But looking at the current situation, Swatantra Party winning around five seats in the FPTP system wouldn't be unbelievable.
Which party will suffer the most when a new party performs so well?
Traditional NC and UML voters constitute a large proportion of those who will vote for Swatantra Party this time. A whopping 434 (73%) of the 592 voters who pledged to vote on bell in 21 constituencies are those who had voted for NC or UML five years back. Former UML voters contribute 40% to Swatantra Party voters and NC 33%.
The most important thing is the majority of first-time voters we talked with said that they would vote for Swatantra Party. The number of first-time voters pledging to vote for NC or UML is almost nil in constituencies where they have not fielded fresh candidates.
Swatantra Party, in this way, seems to be the first love for voters aged 18-24 years and this can cause a headache for the major political parties in the coming years. It will also attract votes from RPP while we also found a few traditional Maoist voters who pledged to vote on bell.
Let us now talk about the ruling coalition.
We again do not have enough data to say whether the ruling coalition can secure majority or not. But what we can say is the rise of Swatantra Party is not a meteoric rise like that of the Maoists in the First Constituent Assembly (CA) Election in 2008 that propelled the former rebels to power. While the current main opposition UML, which together with CPN (Maoist Center) had secured almost two-thirds majority in 2017 with promise of post-election unification, looks set to lose votes this time.
We found the UML voters to be the most frustrated and disenchanted lot. Most of the undecided voters, if you recall our field reports, are those who had voted for UML in the past, and we have already discussed how Swatantra Party will secure the largest share of its votes from UML.
It is not abnormal for NC voters to look to vote for Swatantra Party or other candidates in constituencies where NC has not fielded its candidates as part of the seat-sharing arrangements in the ruling coalition. But UML seems to be bleeding votes to Swatantra Party even in constituencies where it has fielded its candidates.
Another trend that we have found this time is that UML has won over very few NC votes while NC seems to be attracting a larger share of UML votes. Similarly, RPP seems to be getting some UML votes even in constituencies where the two parties have not allied.
We should also consider the fact that the then Khanal-Nepal faction of UML has split and formed CPN (Unified Socialist), which is now in the ruling coalition.
Analyzing all this we can safely say that UML will not build up on the proportion of its PR votes from 2017.
NC will also lose votes to Swatantra Party. But UML does not look set to win in constituencies where NC has not fielded candidates and the grand old party's voters do not seem to prefer coalition candidates from other parties.
UML seems to be losing more votes to Swatantra Party and other candidates than NC even in more than 70 such constituencies. UML, in this way, will struggle to defeat coalition candidates at places where the ruling coalition together secured more votes than UML alone in the recent local election.
We, therefore, estimate that the ruling coalition will find it easier to secure a majority.
We are not in a position to say how many votes CPN (Maoist Center) will receive in the PR system. We didn't find many voters who pledged to vote for the party in the PR system. But we also didn't find many Maoist voters who pledged to vote for other parties in the PR system.
Maoist leaders claim that their PR votes are stable. Looking at the votes received by the party in the Second CA Election in 2013, the general election in 2017 and the recent local election, there does not seem to be much difference in its votes but it still is falling gradually. It can again fall a bit this time.
We also did not find many voters who pledged to vote for Unified Socialist led by Madhav Kumar Nepal. We may not have found many voters of the party as they may be spread across the country but in a very small number. The party formed after split in UML has cadres across the country but we are not in a position to say whether it will become a national party or not.
RPP, Bibeksheel Sajha and Naya Shakti failed to become national parties after the last general election despite widespread discussion about those parties ahead of the election. The then Federal Socialist Forum Nepal (FSFN), largely Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP) now, and Rastriya Janata Party (RJP), largely Loktantrik Samajwadi Party (LSP) now, both had become national parties securing around five percent of votes each despite being Madhes-based parties.
Naya Shakti no longer exists while Bibeksheel Sajha is almost non-existent. RPP is under new leader Rajendra Lingden now and is in the stage of re-branding. RPP has become a sort of new party due to new leadership as top leaders in other major parties remain unchanged.
RPP seems to have added some votes in the main cities and areas around the East-West Highway. RPP's performance in the recent local election had also showed that it can become a national party.
Its votes would have increased further if it weren't for the rise of Swatantra Party which has not just attracted disenchanted voters from NC and UML but even from RPP.
The two Madhes-based parties are also facing the challenge of Janamat Party led by CK Raut and seem a little weaker than they were five years back.
NC had become the largest party in Madhes Province winning in 46 local bodies in the recent local election while JSP won 25 and LSP 14 local bodies.
Upendra Yadav-led JSP, which quit the ruling coalition just before filing of nominations over differences in sharing of seats and joined the main opposition UML, seems set for a double whammy. It faces the challenge of the NC-led ruling coalition that now also includes LSP on the one hand and Raut-led Janamat Party on the other. Yadav himself is struggling to avert what looks like a certain defeat at the hands of Raut in Saptari-2.
Both JSP and LSP will lose PR votes to Janamat Party, and LSP that received only around 2.2 percent votes in the recent local election will not become a national party this time. But it will win a few seats in the FPTP electoral system due to electoral alliance with the ruling coalition.
JSP, meanwhile, will struggle to hold on to the seats it had won earlier. JSP with support of UML is ahead of the ruling coalition in only three constituencies as per the votes received in the recent local election, while UML with support of JSP also seems to be ahead only in three constituencies.
JSP may also struggle to become a national party if it loses votes to Janamat Party in a large proportion while the latter can become a national Party at the cost of the other two parties if it manages to win a significant proportion from those two parties.
Talking about the rise of Swatantra Party, frustration and anger toward the major parties, especially their 'tested and failed' old top leaders, seem to be the number one reason.
Voters across the country seem to remember NC President and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba drooling during the Lumbini visit of his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in May 2022. They seem to be fed up with gerontocracy and pointed how the top leaders of the major parties don't relinquish power as long as they live.
Attraction of the people toward Rabi Lamichhane seems to be the other reason for Swatantra Party's such performance. Many voters recalled how Lamichhane rescued marooned Nepalis while on foreign employment when he was running his popular television show. Many remembered watching his shows on YouTube.
Another factor seems to be the performance of independent candidates like Balen Shah and Harka Sampang in the recent local election. There used to be frustration with the major parties even in the earlier elections but many seemed resigned and assumed that the major parties cannot be defeated.
After Shah and Sampang got elected mayors of Kathmandu and Dharan defeating candidates of the major parties, they now seem to believe that the big parties are not invincible. Perceiving that Shah and Sampang are performing well as mayors, they are further encouraged to elect new parties and candidates.
This erosion of trust in the major established parties is an issue of big concern for them. These parties were a bit scared even after the result of local election in Kathmandu and Dharan. But they seemed to convince themselves that independent candidates can flourish only in local elections and cannot do anything in a multi-party parliamentary system.
Now that a new party has risen tolling the bell, the top leaders of major parties cannot stay unfazed. Younger leaders lobbying for change in these parties will be buoyed by this preference of voters which will act as tailwind in their quest for reform in those parties and intra-party democracy.