10 MIN READ
As the votes are counted for these 2022 local elections, it is worth thinking about why and how we got the candidates that we chose from. I’m thinking in particular of the specific challenging position of women candidates.
We are told time and again that women lack the faculties and competencies to run for higher levels of political office and posts within political parties. This is clearly untrue. In the 2017 local elections, parties were compelled by law to field women candidates, which meant that we, the voters, had to elect some women to the post of chief or more often, deputy chief, of municipalities. As a result, for the last five years, we have seen women do amazing work to deliver goods and services at the local level.
Yet, come 2022, most of these women were left out in the cold when their parties selected candidates. You don’t have to dig deep to see how these elections were contoured to benefit men. Male political elites successfully pressured the Election Commission in April 2022 to revise its initial direction about “compulsorily” fielding women candidates to simply saying that they should be “prioritized” for the post of either chief or deputy chief of a municipality. This is just one, very public, very obvious example of how men ensure their own dominance.
Is it simply ‘supply and demand’?
There are other less visible but pervasive everyday practices and processes, both formal and informal, which work to the advantage of male candidates. I recently carried out research that examined candidate selection in the 2017 local elections, among other processes, with colleagues from The Asia Foundation. Nearly all male political party candidates interviewed about candidate selection repeated the same few arguments – there were not enough women who came forward for senior positions and/or women were more interested in the deputy mayor positions as these were less competitive, given the quotas.
“We gave what we had,” they said. There were no alternative (read women, for example) candidates, because of a “lack of supply.” And running through most discussions about women’s political participation in Nepal is the ever-popular point about their ‘capacity’ – they lack experience, it’s not their fault they don’t have it, it could be developed, and so on. But we rarely question the extent to which this basic premise is true or look seriously into other explanatory factors.
In our research, we sought to understand what is meant by these catch-all arguments about ‘capacity’ and ‘supply’. Our findings were instructive and showed us the paucity of these arguments, which obscure more than they reveal. First of all, as we know from elsewhere, women are less likely to put themselves forward as candidates. A number of interviewees circled around this point, including a male nagar committee chair in Surkhet.
Second, far more than women, men are formally and informally encouraged by male party leaders and others to run for office. This should not be a surprise: the ubiquitous informal networks and factions that provide the encouragement to run and the political and financial resources necessary to be selected are headed and dominated by men. This becomes even more evident when you look at the central level interventions that are made to select certain candidates at the lower levels.
Third, and directly connected to how these networks and factions jockey for dominance within parties, women, perhaps seen as less valuable or pliable, face informal party pressure, discouraging them from running for posts.
So clearly, the purported lack of supply of female candidates and limited demand by male political elites is not the whole answer and neither is the issue of capacity (seemingly for both men and women). Our interviews indicated, and research from elsewhere also shows, that there is a constitutive nature to candidate supply and demand.
In this instance, our research found that women are first of all said to be less likely to possess the appropriate “qualifications” for office. But beyond that, the concern of women themselves that they may not have the appropriate qualifications to run for office may prevent them from running. Women make calculations about the viability of their bid for office based on their own evaluations of the candidates their parties have selected in the past. For example, while a nagar chair in Jhapa initially said that women did not really want to be mayors, he later said that perhaps they chose the deputy mayor position because all the “big men” wanted the mayor position.
Looming large in the background is of course the issue of money. The ability to finance the ever-increasing costs of electioneering, while never an explicit criterion of candidate selection, is nevertheless central to the process. Access to resources is a gendered affair, which limits the ability of women to finance election campaigns, which in turn negatively affects their chances of initially becoming candidates. This factor also weighs heavily in women’s calculations of whether to ask for nominations in the first place, especially since the higher the post, the larger the election expenses.
Now imagine that a woman goes through all these calculations and puts herself forward as a candidate anyway because she has good reasons to judge that she can cross the various hurdles. First, she faces selection committees that, invariably and at each level through which nominations have to be approved, are dominated by men, from the ward to the gaun, the nagar, the area, the district, and all the way up to the center. A perceptive male nagar chair in Jhapa noted that women were not in any important posts in his party, and that “for mayor, the committee will nominate a man because they are all men.”
This is not to say there is no value in locally-based selection processes. They do strengthen internal democratic procedures within political parties, even as it occurs imperfectly and over different time horizons in different contexts. However, as we rightly value the local in political processes, it is vital not to romanticize it. For women, obstacles to candidate selection can feel insurmountable, as party networks and factions and local selection committees continue to exclude women. This then limits their ability to accumulate the political and other capital they need, if they are to be seen as and indeed, to be, players.
This was striking as we took our research beyond processes to look more closely at specific criteria interviewees claimed to consider in selecting candidates. They mentioned – loyalty to the party, sacrifice, dedication, trustworthiness, measurable investment in the party, important contributions made to the party (including doing work assigned by the party), popularity, and the ability to attract votes. Some of these clearly align with officially listed criteria in party constitutions, such as active party membership including campaigning for party candidates, involvement in social development work, actively promoting party positions, and having good relations with the public.
In the Nepali context, vague, formal principles – ones that might on the surface seem neutral, admirable even – enable the sustainability of long-established informal criteria and therefore the political careers of those who have long demonstrated adherence to them.
For example, several male interviewees explained investment in the party not in terms of money, but as “those whose life has been in the party, they’ve participated in andolans [movements], they’ve been jailed for democracy, beaten by police.” In 2002, political scientist Krishna Hachhethu argued that political parties originated in democratic movements, and therefore place a premium on political struggle and sacrifice in the recruitment of leadership and perceive a “leader” as a great man or heroic personality. Twenty years on, these same criteria remain valid in political recruitment, although they are increasingly outweighed by business and economic factors.
Consider other criteria, such as posts held, loyalty, investment in the party, and sacrifice and dedication. All of these stress or derive from ‘seniority’ and thus tilt the balance toward those who already wield the most power, namely the older generation of male politicians who struggled against the monarchy and have been involved in the party for decades.
This contributes to a dynamic described in 1998 by David Niven in which “male party chairs expressed a consistent preference for traits associated with themselves” in a screening process relying on subjective judgments of “acceptability” to decide whether the aspirant is “one of us”. It is unsurprising that, as the media have highlighted, candidates continued to be dominated by the older generation of men, the literal “old boy’s network.”
These criteria have clear repercussions for women. Given the gendered organization of social life, men will have had longer and more visible political careers and more opportunities to gain influence and build political networks, even as women have historically played equally valuable, but less visible, roles in political movements in Nepal. Men are also more likely to have been given the opportunity to shoulder responsibility and do “the work given to the party,”, especially in terms of political posts.
An important informal dimension of candidate recruitment is fluency in the Nepali language — and a certain ‘high’ form of Nepali at that — favored for speeches and rallies. This automatically preselects certain types of gendered candidates and disadvantages other types of men, including Janajatis and people from the Madhes. It is telling that female candidates, including some running for deputy mayor, have been criticized because they “cannot speak”, a criticism internalized by women in politics themselves.
So when women candidates are deemed unsuitable, it turns out that what they are unsuitable for are a set of standards that favor and reflect ‘masculine’ norms and qualities, and the criteria, traits, and experience disproportionately held by the male, high-caste, political elite. This group makes the rules to reflect itself and judges women (most of all, but not exclusively) according to these standards, regardless of whether these criteria are relevant for the actual position at hand. As feminist theorist Meryl Kenny states, “[F]emale candidates often fail to be selected not because they are less “qualified,” but because of the way in which the necessary “qualifications” for political office are defined. All of this reproduces the hegemony of ‘high caste’ men.
Disruption is central
All these ‘neutral’ institutions, processes, and criteria, these formal and informal rules give rise to a curious set of dynamics. The starkest manifestation is a vicious circle in which women do not receive candidate tickets. They are excluded from official posts which means they have less experience and are unable to build, strengthen, and expand important networks and resources (and holding office is vital to accumulating the economic and political resources necessary for elections). This in turn means that they are less likely to receive candidate tickets. And so the exclusionary cycle repeats.
The other result of these formal and informal candidate selection processes and criteria is that the empowerment of men becomes normalized and naturalized. Men are being privileged, but the sources of their privilege and their ‘capacity’ are couched in neutral terms and the connection of these criteria to specific preexisting networks of political and social power is obscured. As a result, on paper, the men are automatically and naturally better qualified. In fact, what they are is 'in power'.
So far, so good. We know, it’s patriarchy, right?
Well, not exactly.
‘Patriarchy’, while still a useful analytical concept, is at risk of becoming a big umbrella we lazily open when faced with complex social realities that seem hard to change. But in fact, when it comes to candidate selection in Nepal, it is quite clear that there are key definitions, procedures, and decisions that have been created at very specific points of time in recent history by specific men who have contoured the whole candidate selection process to benefit themselves. Many of the dynamics described above were evident in the run-up to the 2022 local elections. There is nothing natural or inevitable or ‘timeless patriarchy’ in all of this.
We should think instead about what this means for the future of elections in our country. Beyond the gender representation question, our interlocutors also noted that, while there has always been competition among many for limited election seats, the 20-year absence of local elections created a “backlog” of people who felt entitled to an elective office due to their “investments” in the party and their established political reputations. One politician estimated that two more cycles of local elections were needed to erase this accumulated backlog. To be clear, this backlog consists of entitled older men.
Giving way to male entitlement does not make for democratic politics. We need a positive disruption of the cycles, processes, and criteria of candidate selection. We cannot do this without democratizing processes and revising criteria to better reflect gained experiences and the requirements of elected posts. And more broadly, we need to move away from tired old programs and (non-)debates about ‘building the capacity’ of women. We need to denaturalize the empowerment of men.
Seira Tamang Seira Tamang is a political scientist whose research interests have focused on gender, state and democracy.
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