KATHMANDU, NEPAL — In late December 2022, weeks after voters made her the youngest directly elected member of the House of Representatives in Nepal, 27-year-old Sobita Gautam addressed a crowd gathered at a cricket stadium. “Young people have entered Parliament,” she said. “We must develop our country together.”
Gautam, a former television anchor and member of the new Rastriya Swatantra Party — formed in 2022 by a journalist-turned-politician and translated loosely as the National Independent Party — is one of a handful of freshman legislators recently ushered into power by an increasingly disillusioned electorate.
Nearly 30 governments have been formed in Nepal since the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1990; not one has lasted a full five-year term. In the 2022 general election, voter turnout was down — 61% compared to 68% in the previous cycle — and the country’s three largest parties all saw their vote shares decline. Fresh faces performed relatively better: seven candidates from the Rastriya Swatantra Party won election to the House of Representatives, as did five independents. Many candidates with no prior political experience were motivated to run after hip-hop artist Balen Shah, 32, became Kathmandu’s first independent mayor earlier that year.
“We were able to win because Nepali people were fed up with Nepali politics,” Gautam says.
Dil Bahadur Karki, 76, was a longtime Nepali Congress Party loyalist, but he voted for Gautam in November. “We got a new candidate, and she was a girl,” he says. “I voted for her because I believed she would perform well if elected.” His two granddaughters, currently living abroad, urged him to vote for Gautam; he complied, he says, because previous elected representatives had done little for his constituency.
It is this disaffection with the status quo that has brought politicians like Gautam into power. “Citizens are not fed up with the constitution,” says Jhalak Subedi, a political analyst and former student leader. “They are fed up with the state of corruption and the administrative system and have expressed their dissatisfaction with old parties by voting for new candidates.” In the established parties’ struggle to hold on to power, the electorate has often been neglected, says Chaitanya Mishra, sociology professor at Tribhuvan University. “They give priority to sitting in office,” he says, “but what they do while in office is secondary.”
Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal
Toshima Karki, 33, is determined to make the most of her new political power. A former surgeon and member of the Nepal Medical Council, she says she turned to electoral politics after witnessing widespread corruption and inequities in health care. Last year, contesting on a Rastriya Swatantra Party ticket, she defeated her constituency’s incumbent— a veteran politician and former minister — by a landslide, campaigning on universal health care and expanding the medical workforce. Since becoming a member of Parliament, she has been examining the physical state and standard of care at hospitals in her constituency and plans to revitalize the country’s public health insurance schemes. “I will raise the public interest in Parliament,” she says. “If policies have not been enacted, I will enact them.”
This is easier said than done, warns Subedi, adding that the freshman class of politicians appears to have a narrow understanding of politics, glossing over the realities of operating in a country where the bureaucracy and other state apparatus wield an immense amount of power. “They should be aware of international structures, constitutions and resource limitations,” he says, noting that many have won support based on personal reputation. “The public now holds the view that if a person is good, the delivery of service will also be good. We don’t know how correct this belief is.”
Since entering Parliament, Gautam has developed greater appreciation for the challenges inherent in governance. It was far simpler to criticize political parties for inaction from the outside, she says. During the election, she campaigned for better roads, access to drinking water, and well-managed sewerage systems in her constituency, but she realizes her main responsibility now is making laws. “Policy shortcomings are the reason development projects stalled,” she says. “I will facilitate projects at the policy level so that executive bodies can do their job.”
Meanwhile, others hope this fledgling shift in Nepali politics will nudge older parties to take stock, leading to a more meaningful change in the electoral landscape. “New and independent parties were born because the old party members did not want to hand over responsibility to the next generation,” says Madhav Dhakal, district secretary of the Nepali Congress Party — the country’s largest party — who is from Kavrepalanchok district and is former joint general secretary of the party’s student wing.
Dhakal, who has been active in politics for 20 years, has never served as an elected politician; due to his relatively junior rank within his party, he has never secured a ticket to contest a mayoral or parliamentary election. He remains loyal to his party but is heartened to see the emergence of a new crop of politicians. “The arrival of independent youth has encouraged young people in politics,” he says. “Today, there are eight or nine parliamentarians under the age of 30. This is progress. It is encouraging for people like us.”
Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal