Nepal’s protest candidate channels rising popular disaffection

November 18, 2013

Ujwal Thapa, an independent candidate who studied in the United States and returned to Nepal to become an IT entrepreneur, speaks to volunteers at his campaign office in Peepal Bot, Kathmandu, on Friday, Nov. 15, 2013. (Anup Kaphle/The Washington Post)

KATHMANDU – When 36-year-old U.S.-educated entrepreneur Ujwal Thapa went to the Election Commission here to register as an independent candidate for Nepal's upcoming elections, he was asked to pick from 50 different symbols. As in many countries, Nepal's ballots include a symbol alongside each name or party to make them easier to remember. Thapa picked the dog – a symbolic choice, he said.

"The other options were an owl, a buffalo and a wild boar among various other animals," Thapa explained. “We decided to go with the dog because we want to change the perception. We want people to think our leaders should be like dogs – but loyal like dogs, honest like dogs, and protector like dogs.”

Nepal, a country that has long been suffering from political deadlock, will hold an important election on Tuesday to elect members for a constituent assembly that will write a new constitution.

But Nepalis have been here before. After historic elections in 2008 that saw the Maoists win the popular vote, many had hoped change would happen, and the long-running political stalemate would finally end. But the elected constituent assembly was unable to agree on a constitution, forcing bitter divisions among political groups.

Thapa’s candidacy has attracted frustrated Nepalis, many of whom say they are tired of politicians and want to use this vote as a form of protest.

“Voting for Kukur [dog] is a protest vote at the very least, but it could also mark the beginning of a genuine party of the people, or even one whose moment has already arrived.,” said a popular blog of Nepali Times, an English weekly in Kathmandu.

Thapa said that for several years he tried to get involved in politics from the outside, first as an entrepreneur and then as an activist. “But I soon realized politics is the biggest hurdle to getting things done,” he said. “So, I decided unless I am inside, I will never be able to overhaul the system.”

Until last month, Thapa’s name and his election campaign were virtually unknown to Kathmandu and its voters. But since then, people have taken notice. Thapa is running against two political heavyweights -- incumbent Narahari Acharya from the Nepali Congress party, who is seen as someone who has not accomplished much since he was last elected, and the general secretary of the United Marxist Leninist group, Ishwor Pokharel, who has drawn criticism for taking no action while his party’s cadres beat up a voter who questioned him about his finances.

“We are a fresh alternative to the bandwagon of old, failed and corrupt leaders that people have gotten fed up with,” Thapa told The Kathmandu Post, a local daily, on Friday.

On Sunday, two days before the election, a popular Nepali magazine published a story reporting that a member of the youth group led by Thapa, who also is running as an independent candidate with the same dog symbol, made millions from a con scheme. Some Nepalis responded on social media, saying the article shows the true colors of young leaders who are casting themselves as change agents.

Thapa, responding to the criticism, tweeted Mahatma Gandhi's words: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

Anup Kaphle is the Post's digital foreign editor. He has an M.S. degree in journalism from Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Max Fisher | November 18, 2013