Impending Political Shifts in Nepal

The new alliance in Nepal aims to reshape the country's political landscape and introduce significant constitutional reforms to address the long-standing instability

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Nepali Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal speaks at a ceremony for the handover of the Civil Service Hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal on April 28, 2023. (Photo by Hari Maharjan/Xinhua)

On Friday, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda will seek his fifth vote of confidence in the last 18 months, which he will lose as former Prime Minister KP Oli’s UML has withdrawn support from the Left alliance. A midnight 7-point deal last Monday between former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Nepali Congress (NC) and Oli’s UML (the largest and second largest parties) will form the fourth government since December 2022 to end the kingmaker role of CPN Maoists, the third largest party. An NC leader told me that the arrest one day before the deal of one Bechain Jha, linked to the Bhutanese refugee scandal whose tread-marks lead to apex NC and UML leaders, triggered the deal. Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane, whom NC had been targeting and UML protecting in Parliament over the Pokhara Cooperative fraud case, called the deal ‘Oli and Deuba’s bid to escape corruption cases’. Balen Shah, Mayor of Kathmandu, made snide remarks about the GiriBandhu Tea Estate corruption case. Just ten days ago, the government had announced eight new envoys, including replacing its NC-appointed Indian Ambassador, Shankar Sharma, who survived an earlier attempt when Oli was Prachanda’s senior coalition partner.

The 7-point deal is essentially about power-sharing during the remaining 40 months of Parliament, with Deuba offering Oli the first PM position as he wants to be premier before the 2027 elections. They have agreed on the number of ministries they will share, with UML keeping Finance and NC taking the Home Ministry. NC and UML are sworn enemies with differing ideologies. Both their leaders are widely experienced and have served jail time. While Deuba has been PM five times, Oli has led Nepal twice. Deuba is recognised as India’s blue-eyed boy and is favoured by the West; Oli is coveted by China, though he is not a red-blooded Communist but a democrat at heart.

Political instability has plagued Nepal since the first multi-party elections in 2008 under the interim constitution. Sixteen PMs have played musical chairs over 16 years, even after the federal, democratic republican constitution of 2015.

The electoral system produces a hung parliament. Removing this malaise is ostensibly the aim of the national consensus government by altering the constitution with a two-thirds majority of 184 seats in a House of 275. It will propose deleting the Proportional Representation (PR) system for 110 seats, making changes in the Upper House, turning Nepal into a Hindu state, and even removing the federal system. These modifications are emerging from the speculation mill in Kathmandu. But one message is also clear: the two mainline parties do not intend to be sidelined by so-called kingmakers with 20 to 30 lawmakers.

Prachanda, who led the 10-year-long people’s war and helped introduce transformative constitutional reforms, is no greenhorn. He adores power and considers it the ultimate aphrodisiac. Even with his party’s dwindling electoral scores, he has managed to capture the limelight. Despite the proposed Left-Centre alliance holding a sizeable majority of 167, Prachanda has refused to resign on moral grounds. He expects that since government formation was under Article 76(2) of the constitution, President Ramchandra Paudyal will invoke Article 76(3) to invite Deuba, leader of the single largest party, to form a government which will deprive Oli of the premiership. Both Prachanda and another former PM, Madhav Nepal, formerly of UML, despise Oli and would give their left arm to ensure he does not become PM again.

Senior NC leader Shashank Koirala has said an NC-UML coalition will weaken opposition forces. Another senior NC leader, Shekhar Koirala, noted that government formation may legally lean towards 76(3) rather than 76(2).

This move will scuttle the midnight deal and ensure that Deuba becomes the first PM, with Prachanda ready to offer him the PM position for the entire remaining period. It will restore the democratic alliance of NC, CPN (M), and smaller parties that ruled for a year until March. As Paudyal is an NC appointee backed by CPN (M), he can easily be asked to follow 76(3) instead of 76(2). Many in NC are unhappy with the deal.

Neither China nor India has reacted to the impending fall of the Prachanda-led government, though news in the Kathmandu market is that India was not happy with the China-inspired Left alliance government. The Chinese Communist Party was keen to unite all Left parties under former President Bidya Devi Bhandari, wife of the late Madan Bhandari, UML’s charismatic leader. But Oli rejected the idea. The Chinese will be disappointed with the brief longevity of the Left alliance, blaming India for it. This is the grapevine in Kathmandu, even though Delhi does not want Oli as PM.

For a national consensus government securing a two-thirds majority will not be difficult. The NC and UML together have 167 lawmakers. Seventeen other lawmakers are needed to amend the constitution in order to bring political stability to Nepal. Smaller parties are already falling in line, hoping for political stability.

But key questions remain. What will become of the NC corruption crusade against Lamichhane, who was being shielded by Oli and Prachanda? What about the UML-driven change of NC-appointed envoys? Will Oli do to Deuba what he did to Prachanda in not honouring a power-sharing deal earlier? Can a government of opposite poles cohabit? Or will it collapse sooner rather than later?

Ashok K Mehta

Ashok K. Mehta is a radio and television commentator, and a columnist on defence and security issues. He is a former Major General of Indian Army. After joining the Indian Army in 1957, he was commissioned in the 5th Gorkha Rifles infantry regiment in the same year. He had fought in all major wars India went into, except the Sino-Indian War of 1962. And he was also on a peacekeeping mission in Zaire in the year 1962 and in the Indian Peace Keeping Force, Sri Lanka (1988-90) and it was his last assignment in the Indian Army. He is also a writer of several books and a founder-member of the Defense Planning Staff in the Ministry of Defence, India.

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