In the weeks following Kathmandu’s local elections, rectangular dark glasses were out of stock across the market as the city’s young voters snapped up the trademark shades sported by city’s latest mayor, rapper Balendra Shah, who won in an upset landslide in the May polls.
The success of the 32-year-old singer, widely known by his stage name Balen, has been attributed to his campaign’s use of social media to mobilize Nepalese youth, as well as widespread disenchantment with the performance of the country’s established political parties.
Since the end of the Maoist uprising in 2006, Nepali politics has been dominated by three major political parties: The Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal, Maoist Centre (CPN-MC) mostly have been sharing power one way or the other amid shifting alliances. Recent local elections however indicate that some new twists and turns might take place in Nepalese politics. A number of independent candidates challenged the candidates of the major Nepalese parties and were able to defeat them even in some prestigious races. Among those by far the biggest surprise: Balen Shah.
Shah ran as an independent candidate in the highly prestigious race for mayor in May and emerged victorious with 61,767 votes against his main competitors, Srijana Singh (38,341 votes) of Congress and UML’s candidate Keshav Sthapit (38,117 votes). Not only that, Shah won without the backing of a well-greased party machinery in the national capital; his win might even indicate a shift in voters’ political consciousness and be a harbinger of bigger changes ahead in the upcoming federal elections scheduled for November 2022.
Shah – a structural engineer by training – announced his candidacy five months before the elections and focused on using social media like TikTok, Twitter and Instagram in his campaign efforts. Here, he built on his platform as a prominent figure in Nepali hip-hop music, well-known for freestyle rap battles in which he addresses pressing social issues. Meanwhile, he also created visibility in the mainstream media and was able to convince voters with his dignified tone as well as the fact that he showed no sign of intimidation by the mockery of the traditional flagbearers of Nepalese politics.
In Nepal’s political environment, which is traditionally dominated by strong long-term ties of the majority of voters with one of the major three parties, he managed to maintain a clean image in times of growing public discontent with the performance of the political elites. At the same time, rival candidate and twice former mayor Keshab Sthapit was verbally lashing out on the campaign trail at a social activist who confronted him with allegations of sexual harassment. He also attacked Shah for allegedly hiding his origins in the Southern plains of Nepal, the Terai hinting to the fact that a person from Terai would never work in favour of Hilly region i.e., the majority of people living in Kathmandu Metropolitan City.
Since Shah’s win, the question on everybody’s mind has been: How did he win without any backing and credible experience in politics? And though it is still difficult to exactly identify his recipe, there are some ingredients that can be distilled: Besides the incoherent behaviour of his competitors and Shah’s ability to profit from being an outsider, another element of his success is that, though initially sceptical, political analysts and celebrities turned to openly support him. He also could count on his special appeal with young Nepalese voters around the globe through social media, who do not feel represented by major parties and seem to be fed up with the status quo of Nepalese politics. Though many of them were not eligible to vote – there is no system of mail ballots in place in Nepal – they requested their parents to cast their votes for him. Overall, Shah will definitely go down in Nepalese election history as the first candidate who primarily campaigned digitally.
In Nepalese elections, the assigned election symbol plays a significant role and has even led to fierce fights between rivalling party factions in the past. The symbols also play a prominent role in the campaigns, since they are the only representations of the candidates on the ballot papers, where the voters stamp the respective symbols. While the major political parties’ symbols are known by every child in the country – the tree for Nepali Congress, the sun for CPN-UML and a sickle and a hammer for CPN-Maoist Centre – Balen Shah got a lauro, a walking-stick, assigned as his election symbol by the election commission. And against all odds, he managed to use it smartly in his favour, took to Twitter and stated: “The stick is my election symbol. This can be used to provide support to the elderly, and also to punish the corrupt.”
Shah, one of the youngest ever mayors of Nepal, has promised substantive change in Kathmandu Metropolitan City. He ran his campaign primarily on a number of issues that affect people’s everyday lives: improving and monitoring of the highly privatized educational sector; solving the long-term problems with sanitation and waste management; making safe drinking water available; improving traffic management and public transportation; preserving the cultural heritage site’s art and culture; and increasing tourism in Kathmandu valley. However, none of these issues will be easy to solve.
In addition, he might need to navigate some strong headwinds to deliver. With the given structure of Nepal’s federalism, Shah certainly will have to find ways to use his limited authority smartly. According to the Local Government Act, municipal power rests fundamentally in the hands of the metropolitan assembly, which will be dominated by a majority of Nepali Congress and CPN-UML. To pass any policies, Shah will need to organize a majority among those, who suffered a bitter defeat at his hand. Therefore, he will need to prove that he not only has the ability to campaign and appeal to the public, but also has the skills to convince and negotiate as a mayor of a metropole. Given that the representatives of political parties already opposed Shah on the day of his oath-taking, when he proposed to screen the city council meetings live, it looks like there will be more clashes down the line.
It might still be too early to say if the successes of Shah and other independent candidates represent a growing disenchantment with the old guard of political parties and their failure to address especially young people’s concerns or rather have been brought about by specific local factors. In addition, many political analysts remain sceptical that non-partisan candidates will be able to deliver on their promises, given that the Nepalese society is in many ways highly organized along party lines.
Shah did not seem to have a bad start at first: He managed to end ongoing protests at Kathmandu’s major waste dump site and reinstated regular waste collection. He also finally managed to put a number of sweeper machines on the streets again, something his predecessor appeared unable to make happen. However, the waste issue is far from being resolved, new disruptions emerged and the waste starts piling up in the streets of Kathmandu again. With this also the initial positive reception of Shah starts to turn sour.
It remains to be seen, how he will be able to perform over time and if he can really succeed without support from any of the major Nepalese parties. Maybe his many rap battles prepared him for some of the challenges ahead and through them he garnered the ability to take some blows and to make a comeback at the right time. The citizens of Kathmandu Metropolitan City are still hopeful that he will be more successful in delivering on his promises than his successors.
Jonathan Menge is the Resident Representative of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) in Nepal. His areas of expertise include labour rights, gender equality, civil society, and human rights.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.
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