Nepal’s Prime Minister Dahal Changes Partners Mid-stream

Writing for The Diplomat Magazine, Santosh Sharma Poudel argues that Prachanda's change of partners has more to do with domestic politics and personal interest than influence from neighboring powers.


The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 31 July 2023. Please read the original article here.

Nepal’s new coalition government, led by Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center (CPN-MC) supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal, won the vote of confidence in parliament today. He received 157 votes out of 268 present parliamentarians, with support from Khadga Prasad Oli-led Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), Rabi Lamichhane-led Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP), Upendra Yadav-led Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP), and Madhav Kumar Nepal-led Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Socialist (CPN-US). By contrast, 110 parliamentarians, led by the Nepali Congress (NC), voted against Dahal.

The government was expected to win the confidence vote, as it had sufficient numbers to ensure an easy victory.

The vote of confidence was necessitated by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal changing his coalition partners yet again. On March 4, he parted ways with the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led Nepali Congress and joined hands with the CPN-UML.

This is the second time that Dahal has changed his coalition partners since he assumed the premiership in December 2022.

Despite contesting the November 2022 elections in alliance with the NC, he formed a government with the support of the CPN-UML and other smaller parties. That alliance lasted barely two months before Dahal ditched the coalition to join hands with the NC. The current coalition is, in a way, a return to the short-lived status quo of December 2022.

Since the first elections after the insurgency in 2008, one of either the NC, CPN-UML, or Dahal’s CPN-MC has led the coalition government in Nepal except for 11 months in 2012-13, when Kil Raj Regmi chaired the council of ministers.

Coalitions have featured two of the three parties in various permutations and combinations, with the third lurking in opposition, seeking an opportune time and space to exploit a divide in the ruling coalition. After all, coalitions in Nepal have been about political opportunism.

Dahal had signaled an impending change in partners a month ago. He was miffed that the NC “deceived” his party in the National Assembly elections and an NC faction helped the then-opposition CPN-UML form a provincial government in Koshi Province. Dahal said he had reached a point to “rethink the alliance.”

Dahal justified the new coalition by saying he was unsatisfied with the pace of governance. He could “lead an average and ad hoc government or risk premiership for nation-building,” the Maoist leader said, adding that he preferred the second option.

This is Dahal’s third stint as prime minister, and he has been vocal about wanting to make a difference and leave a legacy, but he has acknowledged his failure to deliver.

Meanwhile, the NC has accused Dahal of “betrayal and political dishonesty.”

Analysts have linked Dahal’s change of coalition partners to increased geopolitical competition for influence between India and China. Indian media have taken the narrative of a “China hand” in the formation of a leftist coalition up a notch. Some Nepali leaders, such as C.K. Raut, have also alleged that Beijing influenced the composition of the new coalition in the interest of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Those insinuations are not without substance; however, New Delhi is also engaged in most political developments in Nepal, including forming governments. A few months back, Dahal conceded that a certain businessman made multiple trips to New Delhi to ensure Dahal became the prime minister for the first time in 2008. That he announced this in public surprised a few, but nobody was surprised by what he said.

Similarly, Beijing’s engagement in Nepali politics has increased. In 2018, Beijing encouraged the Oli- and Dahal-led communist parties to merge and form a single Nepal Communist Party (NCP). China also tried its best to keep the unified NCP together when the Dahal-Oli divide made it untenable. Beijing even intervened publicly, though unsuccessfully, to prevent Nepal from ratifying the $500 million grant for the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

In the weeks leading to the recent change in government, the Indian and Chinese ambassadors to Nepal were busy meeting top leaders from all parties. Addressing the concerns, Oli clarified that foreign powers had no role in the political change. He asserted that Dahal led the process, and he merely supported his “brother.”

In explaining the switch, Dahal has expressed frustration at the intra-party frictions in the Nepali Congress, which affected the government’s performance. Additionally, he was miffed with the NC’s decision to contest the next elections on its own. Dahal chided his former coalition partner, wishing them well for “contesting elections alone and winning a majority.”

Besides, Dahal’s party was concerned that Hindu nationalists got a platform in the NC’s mahasamiti meeting – the conclave where the NC discusses the future direction of the party. At this year’s meeting, nearly half of the NC members signed a petition demanding the restoration of a Hindu state.

Dahal also had his own personal interests and his party’s political future in mind. Had he continued with the previous coalition and stayed true to the agreement, his tenure would have ended in a year. With the current coalition, he could continue for three more years at the helm.

In addition, Dahal realizes that his party will find it hard to maintain its current political position, let alone improve on it, in the next elections if it contests alone. With the NC’s decision to run on its own, Dahal needed to court the support of other parties. In this endeavor, Dahal chose Oli as his partner. He also talked about forming a “socialist coalition” that would bring together CPN-UML and other leftist parties.

The agreements signed by the coalition partners — four parties on March 4 and five parties on March 12 — primarily focus on power sharing and a few legislative issues, such as finalizing bills related to transitional justice and the peace process. Ironically, it also includes the need for political stability to strengthen national sovereignty, independence, geographical integrity, and socialism-oriented socioeconomic development, a nod to a potential “socialist alliance” for the 2027 election.

Though the political change was primarily a result of domestic political considerations, it will have some impact on Nepal’s foreign policy. Dahal and Oli are keen to implement projects under the BRI that could assuage Beijing’s concerns in Nepal.

Nevertheless, political changes in Nepal have neither brought political stability nor altered the country’s strategic direction, although there have been tactical changes in foreign policy. Thus, Beijing should not be upbeat about the change, nor should India or the United States view Nepal as a lost cause.

Dahal has proclaimed himself an agent of “upheaval” and vowed to continue being so in Nepal’s politics. Nepali politics does not need Dahal to cause waves, but Dahal has contributed to a fair share of them.