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Unpacking Nepal’s national elections

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Photos: Prakash Mathema/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Nepal’s parliamentary elections look set to uphold the status quo, a new army chief takes over in Pakistan, and an Indian billionaire buys a major TV news network.

Final results from Nepal’s Nov. 20 parliamentary elections are expected next week, but key details are emerging about the outcome. The Nepali Congress party, which heads the current ruling coalition, took the most votes, and the main opposition party—the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist—came second. Neither party has the seats needed to form a new government on its own, nor aren’t the two rivals likely to form a coalition.

It is likely that the Nepali Congress and its current coalition partners will pick up enough votes to reach a majority; the party is meeting with them this week to explore possibilities. In terms of geopolitics, India may get a boost in its growing competition with China. The current ruling coalition in Kathmandu has strengthened ties with New Delhi while in government.

The other major storyline was low turnout: Only 61 percent of voters showed up, a significant decrease from the last two national elections. Experts attribute this to voters’ unhappiness with establishment political figures. But the low turnout is striking because observers in Nepal had depicted this election as pivotal—even transformational—because of the country’s serious economic stress but also because there were many new, young politicians among the candidates.

Anil Sigdel, a political analyst and director of Nepal Matters for America, said many voters stayed home because of the “feeling of disenchantment toward the behavior of party leaders who have always prioritized personal power rather than national interest.” Sigdel said that “politicians have failed to unite and cooperate to deliver, which has only increased skepticism.”

With no one party earning a majority, intense horse-trading is underway in Kathmandu as the Nepali Congress works to cobble together a coalition, which could delay the formation of a new government. Without a clear ideology guiding alliance formation, “any sort of marriage of convenience is possible,” Sigdel said. Many of Nepal’s key parties are left-leaning.

If the current coalition agrees to stay together, it is in a strong position to return based on the results so far. But even if many familiar faces are returning, some newer ones have arrived. Nepal analyst Santosh Sharma Poudel notes that many senior leaders from the three major parties (the third being the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center) lost their seats; six current ministers were defeated. A new party, the National Independent Party, was the fourth-highest vote-getter, eating into the into the vote bank of the major parties.

Despite voter apathy, both China and India watched the election closely: Both countries are embroiled in increasingly intense strategic competition in Nepal. New Delhi would benefit from a return of the current coalition. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba strengthened Nepal-India ties after succeeding current opposition leader K.P. Sharma Oli, who courted more Chinese investment. Nepal’s leftist parties have ideological affinity for China but in recent years have been split between the government and the opposition; Beijing, unsurprisingly, wants them to reunite.

Regardless of what the next coalition looks like, Kathmandu will want to balance ties with New Delhi and Beijing to avoid getting dragged into great-power competition. Most parties seek an independent foreign policy, but another benefit of staying out is fewer distractions from serious domestic challenges, such as economic stress.

What We’re Following

Pakistan’s new army chief. Last Friday, Islamabad announced the appointment of a new army chief, Gen. Asim Munir. Analysts have long viewed the role as the most politically powerful in Pakistan. Munir took office on Tuesday, succeeding Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, who became increasingly unpopular during his last months in office. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan repeatedly accused Bajwa of helping to engineer his ouster via a no-confidence vote in April.

Munir faces several immediate challenges. He must restore credibility to the army, which has taken major popularity hits from Khan’s large and growing support base. He will also be under pressure to defuse tensions between Khan and the government—a difficult task compounded by his relationship with the former prime minister, who fired Munir only eight months into his term as Pakistan’s spy chief. Khan continues to demand early elections from the government.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has experienced an alarming surge in terrorist attacks, which increased by 51 percent between August 2021 and August 2022. On Monday, the Pakistani Taliban announced that it would begin staging nationwide attacks; most of its operations in the last few years have been in the northwest near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

Indian billionaire to buy news network. Indian billionaire Gautam Adani, one of the richest people in the world, is poised to purchase New Delhi Television (NDTV), one of India’s major English-language TV channels. The sale came closer to fruition this week, when NDTV’s founders resigned from the board of a holding company with a large stake in the channel. In a recent interview, Adani said he wants NDTV to “become independent and have a global footprint,” invoking Al Jazeera as an example.

However, there are questions about independence under Adani. Many top TV channels in India openly back Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. NDTV has stood out as an independent voice, but Adani has praised Modi and is described as close to the prime minister, raising concerns. But some who know Adani think his ties to Modi shouldn’t be overstated. R.N. Bhaskar, who wrote a biography of Adani, said that his “relationship with political and social leaders, across all types of party lines, have made him acceptable to every government.”

Afghanistan’s crisis deepens. Winter has arrived in Afghanistan, adding to the country’s suffering. More than 90 percent of Afghan households are going hungry, and a recent BBC report revealed people taking desperate measures to get enough money to eat. Afghanistan’s humanitarian disaster can be attributed to both poor Taliban governance and international policies, but the regime has more capacity to provide relief than it lets on. It is generating revenue, especially through border trade, but it blames the crisis on Western sanctions.

International donor assistance was reduced to a trickle when the Taliban seized power last year, and the cutoffs were economically devastating. But bad luck is a factor, too. Climate-vulnerable Afghanistan has experienced both droughts and floods in recent months, which have exacerbated food insecurity. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also redirected international attention and aid away from Afghanistan.

Under the Radar

On Sunday, India’s External Affairs Ministry announced that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has accepted New Delhi’s invitation to serve as the chief guest at India’s Republic Day festivities next year. New Delhi has long used the Jan. 26 holiday, which marks the adoption of India’s constitution in 1950, to showcase the country’s most important partnerships with a visit from a foreign head of state or government.

As chief guest, Sisi will accompany Modi to a military parade and other celebrations. The Egyptian president is a logical pick for 2023. Modi has made strengthening relations with the Middle East a top priority. The region is a key source of trade, especially energy imports, and hosts a large Indian worker population. New Delhi also seeks to deepen relations with countries in the region that have formal relations with Israel, another of India’s top partners there.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Delhi last hosted a foreign leader for the event in 2020 (Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro). In 2019, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa attended. Then-U.S. President Donald Trump declined, citing scheduling conflicts.

That’s it for this week.