The race for national party status

Several political parties in Nepal are struggling to retain their national party status while others are struggling to secure this status after next month’s elections.

Parties that failed to become national parties in the 2017 general elections despite winning at least one seat in the First Past the Post (SMU) are trying to attract more voters in order to obtain three percent of the proportional representation (PR) votes that are mandatory to become a national party.

Likewise, some major parties that fared poorly in local polls in May, with their national vote share falling to less than three percent, are also struggling to maintain their national party status.

Six political parties – the Nepalese Congress, CPN-UML, CPN (Maoist Centre), CPN (Unified Socialist), Janata Samajbadi Party and Loktantrik Samajbadi Party – held national party status in the last elected representatives to the House of Representatives in 2017. Candidates elected from parties that do not obtain “national” status are treated as independents in the House.

Some of them were later added to the list.

Janata Samajbadi Party – which was formed after a merger between Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum led by Upendra Yadav and Rastriya Janata Party led by Mahantha Thakur – in August 2021 split into Janata Samajbadi Nepal Party and Loktantrik Samajbadi Party.

On the other hand, some disgruntled leaders left the CPN-UML to form the CPN (Unified Socialist) under the leadership of Madhav Kumar Nepal last August.

Following the formation of these new political parties, the Sher Bahadur Deuba government passed an ordinance stipulating that if an existing national party split, the new parties thus formed would automatically be national parties even without reaching the 3% vote threshold.

The ordinance opened an easy path for the Socialist United Party, Loktantrik Samajbadi Party and Janata Samajbadi Party to gain national party status.

Now, gaining status again could be a challenge for some of these parties, based on their popular votes in the latest local polls.

If local poll results from May are any guide, the United Socialist has 3.66% of the popular vote, barely above the mandatory threshold. As the party has a strong chance of winning at least one seat in the first past the post system to maintain its status as a national party, it cannot afford to lose its national voters.

Similarly, the Loktantrik Samajbadi party has only 2.12% of popular votes, which is below the threshold. The party can easily win a seat in the SMU, but since its influence is waning even among its own base, it must work hard to garner enough votes to secure status.

Party leaders, however, are confident. Keshav Jha said they only fielded candidates in 25-30 districts in the local elections, which is why the party’s popular votes declined, but the number of votes would increase in November. Stating that the voting pattern differs in major elections, he said, “As our party will get proportional representation votes across the country, we are certain to retain national party status.”

Another Madhesh-based party, the Janata Samajbadi, on the other hand, appears to be in a more comfortable position as it garnered 5% of the popular vote in May polls.

About eight months before the 2017 elections, Parliament passed a bill with one SMU seat and three percent of the votes in the proportional representation category as the criteria for political parties to gain national party status.

According to the bill, representatives of parties that win an SMU seat or seats but do not obtain 3% of the popular vote are treated as “independent legislators” in parliament.

Fringe parties opposed the bill arguing that such a provision would strip them of representation and accused the larger parties of forming a union.

Although the Rastriya Janamorcha won an FPTP seat in the lower house in the 2017 elections, it did not gain national party status after failing to meet the 3% vote threshold.

Challenges remain, party leaders say.

Durga Paudel, vice president of the party, agrees that since achieving national party status will be a challenge, they are working hard to increase their votes. “Our candidates for the proportional representation system are experienced and have a good public image,” she told the Post. “As they represent people from all walks of life, we are hopeful.”

The Rastriya Prajatantra Party won 3.16% of popular votes in the last local elections. This gives the RPP the hope of being a national party after the next elections.

In parliamentary elections after the 1990s, parties needed at least 3% of the total votes cast to gain national political party status.

The electoral threshold was later removed in the first Constituent Assembly elections in 2008 to ensure greater participation of political parties in the constitution-drafting process.

A new party in the scene is the Rastriya Swatantra party. TV star Rabi Lamichhane, the chairman of the party which has many fans across the country, is in the Chitwan-2 fray. The party has sent professionals to many constituencies and is seen as another potential national party.

Party leaders are also confident. No less than 23 candidates are popular in their constituencies and have a strong chance of winning, said Ganesh Karki, a member of the party’s central committee.

According to Karki, the party, with many young and active professionals as candidates in its ranks, hopes to collect swing votes because “the public is frustrated with the non-performance of traditional parties”, he said.

The Nepalese Congress, the Maoist Center and the United Socialist, with respectively 34.28, 33.03 and 13.03% of the popular votes, occupy comfortable positions.