Nepal will vote on November 20 to elect new representatives to the federal parliament and provincial assemblies.
In a way, these elections will be more than a periodic democratic exercise. Outside forces, China and the United States in particular, will be very interested in knowing which party will form the government in Kathmandu for another five years.
It would be folly to imagine otherwise in the current geopolitical climate, says foreign policy analyst Geja Sharma Wagle.
As the United States and China vie for influence in South Asia, he says the two world powers are “watching carefully” political developments in Nepal.
“The new government’s foreign policy priorities will have a direct impact on them,” adds Wagle.
The effects of US-China tensions have already played out in Nepal’s national politics, as political parties are divided on issues where Beijing and the West disagree.
More recently, two former communist prime ministers, Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Jhala Nath Khanal, lamented the visit to Taiwan by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Previously, communist forces, including those in the ruling coalition, had opposed the government’s stance on the Russian-Ukrainian war. They criticized Nepal’s Congress-led government for deviating from Nepal’s non-alignment policy and taking the US side in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The maneuvers of the United States and China in Nepal reached the level of open insults at the beginning of this year over the United States’ pact of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) in Nepal.
It is no secret that the United States and China are trying to lure Nepal into their orbit and each wants to see a friendly government in Kathmandu.
Nepal’s political parties have also left little to the imagination on which side they stand.
“Nepalese leaders from all political walks of life have this tendency to seek outside blessings,” says political analyst Chandra Dev Bhatta. “Their sycophancy has created space for outside forces to influence our domestic politics.”
Admittedly, it is up to Nepalese voters to choose their government, but the influence of foreign powers on the electoral process should not be overlooked. “External forces, for example, can influence the formation of electoral alliances,” says Bhatta.
It is clear that China prefers the unification of communist forces in Nepal while Beijing wants a strong communist government in Nepal. He had been instrumental in unifying two of Nepal’s most prominent left-wing parties, CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Center), after the 2017 elections.
The result of this union was the former Communist Party of Nepal (NCP), the largest communist party in the country’s history, which held the majority of seats in Kathmandu and six of the seven provinces.
Although the party collapsed within a few years due to infighting, China still has not given up its communist project in Nepal. If not merging parties, Beijing wants Nepal’s communist parties to at least forge an electoral alliance.
During his visit to Nepal in the first week of July, Liu Jianchao, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, met with leaders of the Nepalese Communist Party in a bid to encourage them to come together.
The United States and its Western allies, on the other hand, do not want a pro-Beijing communist government to rule Nepal.
“The democratic world wants to see a government run by a non-Communist party,” Wagle said.
For the United States, and by extension the West, the main objective is to counter China’s growing influence in Nepal. They are ready to support political parties that are committed to implementing the 2015 constitution.
India, which wields considerable influence over Nepal’s domestic politics, is wary of growing Chinese activism in Kathmandu – or Americans, for that matter.
Over the past few years, India has maintained a low-key approach to Nepal’s domestic politics. Narendra Modi’s government in New Delhi is more focused on building party-to-party relationships with the Nepalese forces: it does not want to support one party at the risk of upsetting another.
India knows that Communist parties in Nepal can easily stir up anti-Indian sentiment among voters. He is therefore ready to work closely with any party that comes to Baluwatar. New Delhi will be happy as long as the next government in Kathmandu does not lean towards Beijing.
A New Delhi-based diplomatic source said India had urged Maoist President Pushpa Kamal Dahal not to break the current five-party ruling coalition. Dahal also assured senior Indian officials that his priority was also the continuation of the coalition.
Bhatta says the extent of outside influence in Nepal’s political parties will be further clarified during the formation of the post-election government.
“All powers that have interests in Nepal will try to bring to power those political parties they feel comfortable with,” Bhatta said.