Battle for hearts, minds and ears in Nepal election

Ashok Dahal and Annabel Symington –

With days to go before elections in Nepal the battle for votes is being fought over the air waves as radio stations, many backed by political parties, beam campaign messages to the farthest corners of the nation.
Social media may now dominate political campaigns in the West, but in Nepal, where fewer than one in five people has access to the Internet, radio is king.
The young republic of 29 million people has over 550 radio stations — nearly double the number of commercial FM stations in neighbouring India. But some fear that a medium once seen as a beacon of democracy has become overly politicised.
The vast majority of stations are now backed or owned outright by politicians or prominent supporters.
“Community radio (in Nepal) has always been the most powerful means of communication. They reach the largest number of people… the political parties have understood that,” said Kunda Dixit, editor of the English-language Nepali Times newspaper.
Dixit said many stations have now become mouthpieces for local political parties.
Radio was used by both sides during the 10-year civil war between Maoist insurgents and the state that ended in 2006.
After the conflict ended, the Maoists transformed themselves into a political party, winning the next national election.
On Sunday will see the first phase of voting in the general election, the first under a new national constitution.
The CNP-UML, a communist party that has formed an electoral alliance with the Maoists, is expected to sweep the board and oust the current centre-right government.
But the leader of the one-time rebel Maoists, former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, could become a casualty of the radio revolution he helped to start.
Dahal’s chief rival is Bikram Pandey, a minister in the current government who owns the station Kalika FM — which some say gives him the advantage.
Another former Maoist party prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai, could lose the seat he has held for nearly a decade in the central district of Gorkha to a rival politician who owns a local radio station, Radio Matribhumi.
Gopal Guragain, chairman of the Ujyaalo Network which syndicates national news to 220 radio stations across Nepal, says politicians increasingly see radio as “a tool to motivate and manipulate the people”.