26Jan2023

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Tag: Coalition Government

OP-EDs and Columns

Pushpa Kamal Dahal Heads New Government in Nepal

– SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 27 December 2022. Please read the original article here.

This year’s Christmas brought a “surprise” in Nepal. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC), which won only 32 seats in the 275-member lower house of parliament in the recent general election, was appointed prime minister after he secured the support of seven parties, including the party led by arch-rival Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML).

Sher Bahadur Deuba, who believes that he is destined to be the prime minister of Nepal seven times and was expecting to be the premier for the sixth time, was left out to dry, although his party, the Nepali Congress (NC), won the largest number of seats.

The timely election and selection of the prime minister is an achievement for Nepal’s nascent democratic process. Yet, the formation of the government reeks of a democratic deficit. CPN-MC, which stood a distant third and won only 11 percent of the votes, will lead a government that excludes the largest party. Nepal’s parties have ignored the “mandate of the people.”

As expected, the November 20 election produced a fractured result. The NC emerged as the largest party, winning 89 seats in the federal parliament. CPN-UML, CPN-MC, the National Independent Party (NIP), and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) rounded off the top five, winning 78, 32, 20, and 14 seats, respectively. The newly-elected parliamentarians took the oath of office on December 22.

Parties had jostled for electoral alliances before the elections. Two major alliances contested the polls: a five-party ruling coalition led by the NC, which included Dahal’s CPN-MC, and the opposition coalition led by the CPN-UML. As the election results started to pour in, leaders of political parties engaged in negotiations on government formation. Deuba was confident that the ruling coalition would endure. Dahal repeated the same in public until he made a volte-face at the eleventh hour on December 25.

Primarily, two parties were vocal about their claim to lead the government: NC and CPN-MC. Within the NC, Deuba was challenged by a young leader, Gagan Thapa. While Gagan Thapa remains popular among the general populace and represents the change of generation from the old to young leaders, Deuba has a significant numerical advantage within the NC. Thus, the NC elected Deuba as the leader of the parliamentary party, who is also the party’s prime ministerial candidate, over Thapa by 64-29 votes. Meanwhile, the CPN-MC selected Dahal unopposed.

With this, the contest narrowed down to one between Deuba and Dahal. The two leaders had agreed to take turns leading the government, but neither was willing to concede the chance to lead the government first. Deuba felt he had the natural claim to the leadership first because his party was the largest by a mile, and he was confident that Dahal and Oli would not get back together. Dahal claimed it was his turn after Deuba led the government from 2021 to 2022.

Meanwhile, Dahal was engaging Oli’s CPN-UML through his trusted lieutenants. Oli was waiting in the wings to drive a wedge in the ruling coalition.ADVERTISEMENT

The president invited leaders to claim premiership with majority support by December 25. Deuba was steadfast in his claim of the premiership as the day loomed. Then, Dahal left the coalition and indicated his ditching of the alliance, saying it had “lost its relevance.”

The next day, Dahal received the support of the seven parties, including the CPN-UML, to become the prime minister for the third time. So it is déjà vu, and 2017 again, though the left parties have weakened significantly and needed support from newer parties.

Politics has created strange bedfellows in Nepal in the past. However, this coalition trumps them all.

Besides the CPN-MC and CPN-UML, the coalition includes the four-month-old NIP, the conservative RPP, Madhes-based Janata Samjbadi Party-Nepal (JSP-N) and Janamat Party (JP), and ethnic Nagarik Unmukti Party (NUP) as well as three independent members of the parliament.

Among the coalition partners, the CPN-MC and the CPN-UML largely share common agenda. They were instrumental in introducing federalism and making Nepal a secular state. However, Oli has has indicated his aversion to federalism and secularism in recent times. At a personal level, Oli and Dahal share a tumultuous relationship.

If the two communist parties are from Venus, other coalition partners are from Mars. NIP ran on a “no, not again” platform, attempting to usurp anti-establishment votes. NIP’s leader, Rabi Lamichhane, had said that he would not be a part of any government led by the establishment leaders. The RPP ran on the agenda of reviving constitutional monarchy and the Hindu state. NIP and RPP seek to undo the provincial structure. JP contested against the JSP-N, accusing the latter of ignoring the Madhesi people’s issues in their lust for power. NUP ran on an anti-establishment platform, arguing that the Tharu community in the mid-Terai needed to be freed from the establishment’s control.

The coalition partners have come together in their lust for power. There is bare-knuckle bargaining going on for ministerial portfolios and other political appointments, including in provinces. It can be seen in Lamichhane’s appointment as the deputy prime minister and home minister. There is a court petition against Lamichhane, a Nepali citizen-turned U.S. citizen-turned Nepali citizen, regarding his citizenship. Yet, he now leads the ministry which issues the citizenship certificate. It symbolizes that the coalition is devoid of ethics too.’

Given the breadth of the coalition, Dahal’s focus will be to maintain his hold on power. He will lead the government for at least two years, for the constitution mandates that a no-confidence motion cannot be introduced against a prime minister for two years. However, we can expect a revolving door for the ministerial portfolios. The council of ministers will likely report to their party leaders, not necessarily to the prime minister, weakening the government. It will be a huge miracle if there is a smooth transfer of power to Oli after two years. It will not be a surprise if a new coalition emerges then.

China and India quickly offered “warm congratulations” to the new Prime Minister.

Some Indian analysts believed New Delhi was readying to welcome Deuba as the prime minister. Others, such as former Indian envoy to Nepal Ranjit Roy, had expressed the need for India to engage all parties, big and small. Nepal’s relations with India had normalized under the Deuba-government after it had hit a new low during Oli’s tenure over Nepal’s new map in 2020.

New Delhi is not very fond of Dahal. In its early stages, his party called India an “expansionist” force. He has accused New Delhi of orchestrating his ouster from prime ministership in 2008 and insinuated that New Delhi plotted to kill him. However, he has changed his tune in recent times. During his visit to New Delhi earlier this year, he visited the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters. He met with many senior leaders although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi snubbed him. However, New Delhi still considers Dahal unreliable.

Meanwhile, China could not have been happier at the moment. China had nudged CPN-MC and CPN-UML for a communist unification in 2017 and had tried its best to keep the unified Nepal Communist Party (NCP) together when it was on the verge of splitting at the end of 2020. Beijing was less engaged this time but will cheer the communist-plus coalition.

Deuba, known in Beijing as a pro-India leader, cold shouldered the Belt and Road Initiative, a pet project of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, arguing that he prefers grants to loans. Deuba led the ratification of the $500 million American grant, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), despite vocal Chinese opposition. He has been wary of the Chinese Communist Party as it has invested in party-to-party relations with Nepal’s communist parties.

Dahal shares a better relationship with Nepal’s northern neighbor. His fondness for China will be of concern to the U.S. American engagement in Nepal has increased tremendously in recent years and could slow down during Dahal’s term.

However, Dahal has been pragmatic, if unimaginative, about Nepal’s relations with the two neighbors and the U.S. He has been in politics and power long enough to understand the importance of all three major powers and their interests in Nepal. Therefore, we may not see any significant turn in foreign policy like he frequently does in national politics.

In saying that, the new government has a gamut of issues that require immediate attention. The Deuba-led government had put off the difficult decision on the Agnipath scheme of recruiting soldiers in India. Dahal will have to deal with that controversial issue now. Border disputes with India and China need his immediate attention too. The most pressing will be how Nepal engages India, China, and the U.S. amidst the Sino-Indian regional tension and the Sino-American global tussle. It will also be the issue with the most far-reaching consequences for Nepal’s security.

Dahal has shown his Machiavellian nature to grab leadership at home. We will find out if he can pull out a “surprise” in Nepal’s foreign policy.

OP-EDs and Columns

Coalitions in the Fray in Nepal’s Elections Are Marriages of Convenience

– SANTOSH Sharma Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 25 October 2022. Please read the original article here.

Nepal is in the grip of election fever. The main contest is between two coalitions: the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Nepali Congress (NC), and the opposition alliance led by Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML).

These are the second round of federal and provincial elections to be held in Nepal since the promulgation of the constitution in 2015.

The “unnatural” coalitions have left many flabbergasted. Kathmandu Post, Nepal’s largest-selling English daily, was blunt in its criticism of the alliances. The elections “had been turned into a dance of undemocratic coalitions as political parties hanker to return to power, by all means, fair and foul,” it said. Another major daily, Republica, expressed ”surprise” that parties that are poles apart in political ideologies and policies have formed alliances. It could lead to a “democratic deficit,” it said. Others have called the alliances a “farce” for not offering voters real choices.

Since the 1990s, parties have formed alliances to form governments in Nepal. The 2017 election was the first time that major communist forces led by Oli and Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, formed a pre-poll alliance. The left alliance won the election and secured a near-two-thirds majority, although it secured just 10 percent more votes than the NC. It prompted a realization among parties of the importance of pre-poll alliances, especially in a winner-takes-all election.

There is little doubt that both alliance partners lack ideological similarity or even common policy goals. They have merely come together as a result of the political context.

The ruling coalition, which counts the Prachanda-led Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center (CPN-MC) among others as partners, came together to oust Oli from power after the latter dissolved parliament against the provisions of the constitution, twice. The desire to keep Oli out of power has primarily held this coalition together. Apprehensive at the prospect of fighting a coalition, the opposition, too, scrambled together to boost its electoral chances.

The alliance partners are strange bedfellows. For example, the Prachanda-led MC once called its current partner, the NC, a party of the bourgeoisie that had tried to decimate it during the decade-long insurgency. Interestingly, Deuba was the prime minister who put a price tag on Prachanda’s head during the peak of the Maoist insurgency.

Likewise, the UML is the nemesis of the Janata Samajbadi party (JSP), which advocates for Madhesi rights. Also, while the UML has a history of fighting against monarchy, its alliance partner now is the Hindu nationalist and royalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP).ADVERTISEMENT

Parties have openly said that the alliance is one of convenience to win more seats in the election. “We still have our ideological differences, but we agreed to forge a partnership to improve our electoral prospects,” JSP spokesman Manish Kumar Suman admitted. The JSP dropped out of the ruling coalition after a disagreement over seat allocation to join the opposition.

Opportunism is evident at an individual level too. Prabhu Sah, former minister for urban development, was allotted a ticket to fight as a candidate of the opposition alliance, only to do a volte-face at literally the eleventh hour. At the election office, he registered as an independent candidate after the ruling alliance assured him support.

Prachanda and Oli were comrades-in-arms during the last election in 2017. Together, they swept the federal elections and co-led a unified communist party, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). However, the lust for power and position led to an acrimonious split in the NCP. Now, they are bitter rivals, engaged in a game of one-upmanship against each other.

Yet it would be wrong to assume that alliance partners don’t share goals. The ruling alliance has weaved a narrative that the coalition is one of necessity and more than an attempt to win the election. Its leaders assert that the alliance is necessary to safeguard the constitution from changes by regressive forces. Prachanda said the alliance was essential after Oli led Nepal toward lawlessness and instability.

The ruling alliance’s agenda is to keep Oli and the UML out of power. Oli’s attempts to dissolve the parliament and isolate Prachanda (and Madhav Kumar Nepal, chairman of Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Socialist, a splinter of the UML) in the party led to the current ruling coalition. However, political expediency is keeping the ruling coalition together for the time being.

Interestingly, parties face challenges from within the alliance.

First, many long-serving party cadres who were denied party tickets have chosen to run as “rebel” candidates, while others have bolted to the opposition alliance. This is especially the case among NC leaders, who find voting for a communist party untenable. They have filed candidacies in constituencies where the alliance is fielding a communist candidate. The party has expelled such rebel candidates. There is similar discontent in the opposition alliance. Eighteen central committee members of the RPP wrote to their chair, expressing dissatisfaction with a partnership with the UML.

Therefore, the election result will partly depend upon which alliance manages to pacify disgruntled members and get them to support the alliance candidates.

Second, leaders are concerned that voters will cross party lines to vote for candidates from a different party. This was less of a worry in the 2017 election, where both alliance partners were cadre-based communist parties. However, the current alliances are not natural. NC leaders, such as Gagan Thapa, have said that some party members find it hard to vote for the “hammer and sickle” (the communist party symbol). Therefore, senior leaders of the ruling alliance are taking every opportunity to urge party members and voters to support alliance members. It remains to be seen if voters heed their request.

Third, will alliances last post-election? Even Deuba thinks the coalition is not meant for the long term. In a training session with alliance members, he stated that the alliance should continue for a few years beyond the elections because the threat from regressive forces (read the UML) continues. In the 2017 election, the communist parties won in a landslide and even formally merged their parties, yet it barely lasted three years. Therefore, it would not be surprising if a new coalition emerged after the election.ADVERTISEMENT

Analysts are concerned that the politics-driven, agenda-less, and ideologically fraught alliances effectively deny space for genuine elections where people can vote for the parties of their choice. Others warn that such “debased culture could ultimately lead to a serious crisis in democracy.”

These warnings are genuine but may be overblown. Voters cast two votes in the provincial and federal election: one for the candidates (for winner-takes-all, 165 seats) and the other for the party (for proportional seats, 110 seats). Thus, voters still have the opportunity to vote for their preferred parties.

Also, even when parties contested by themselves before the 2017 elections, it hardly resulted in stable politics or policies based on the ideological principles of the parties or candidates. In practice, there are nominal differences in how democratic or communist parties have run the country when in power. Barring a few, parties and political leaders have placed themselves over ideologies.