First student union election in eight years expected
The Free Student Union or FSU election, the student council polls in Nepal’s Tribhuvan University, normally held every two years, will be held for the first time in eight years on 25 February, and is being seen as a test of the popularity of the Nepali political parties whose student wings will be represented. Some 400,000 students at Tribhuvan University are eligible voters.
Tribhuvan – among the largest universities in the world in terms of student enrolment – accounts for 85% of Nepal’s university students and is a major barometer of the youth vote as university elections have become more politicised in this landlocked country, located between northern India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.
Tribhuvan has 60 constituent colleges and around 1,100 affiliated colleges and the election will be held in the majority of these colleges. Student leaders from around two dozen student unions affiliated with different political parties will be contesting the polls.
In principle the FSU election is to elect student leadership who will advocate for the rights and welfare of the students. However, student politics has become closely linked to wider party politics.
“The student leaders these days are more focused on serving the interests of their mother parties than working on behalf of students,” said Shree Krishna Anirudha Gautam, a political analyst in Nepal.
The university has imposed an age cap for this election, allowing only students below the age of 28 years by voting day to be candidates in the poll. Although the university does not impose an age limit for student enrolment, the university says the decision was taken to control malpractice as those over the age of 40 were found to be contesting as student leaders in the past as a fast track into politics.
Wider political issues
One of the major issues in the upcoming FSU poll, reflecting the agendas of the mother parties, is the amendment of the constitution to address the concerns of the Madhesi parties who come from the southern plains of the country known as the Terai, and who have been demanding a revision of provincial boundaries. There has been a history of unrest by marginalised groups in the Terai since the end of the civil war.
The Madhesi want the Terai to be declared two provinces. Since Nepal’s neighbour India imposed a crippling economic blockade of Nepal in 2015 in support of the Madhesi parties’ claims, the opposition Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or CPN-UML, fears that creating two provinces in the Madhesi strongholds in the Terai region might risk cutting off vital trade routes and travel access to the capital Kathmandu.
It maintains that any newly created provinces should border China as well as India to reduce the landlocked Himalayan nation’s dependence on India.
While the wider issue will be debated in Nepal’s parliament in the coming months, the student vote will be seen as an indication of what the wider public wants.
This is the fourth time the student election has been scheduled and comes after Nepal’s Supreme Court in April 2015 directed the university to hold the elections “within three months”, although this timetable was not adhered to.
Previous planned polls were cancelled. These included the cancellation in February 2012 over a dispute on whether to use a first-past-the-post or proportional representation system. After negotiations the student unions agreed on a mixed electoral system that allows equal division of seats between those elected through the proportional system and the first-past-the-post system.
The election announced for June 2013 was also cancelled as the student unions affiliated to three major parties of the country – the Nepali Congress, the CPN-UML and the ruling Unified Communist Party of Nepal or Maoists – were found to be enrolling hundreds of fake students. However, no action was taken against them.
The polls called for May 2014 were put off after the All Nepal National Independent Student Union-Revolutionary, the sister wing of the ruling Maoist party, demanded the cancellation claiming the election was announced by the university administration without consulting the organisation.
“The new poll dates were announced after consulting all the student unions. We can’t afford to delay anymore,” said Tribhuvan University Rector Sudha Tripathi.
Students say the popularity of the Maoists has been reduced because of party splits and failure to deliver on its promises. The main fight on campuses is between the Nepali Congress-affiliated Nepal Student Union and the CPN-UML affiliated All Nepal National Free Student Union.