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Oli on the backfoot amid political disarray in Nepal

Prime Minister of Nepal, K.P. Sharma Oli

After several months of political turbulence, there is still no light at the end of the tunnel. Nepali politics continues to hurtle towards confusion, disarray and uncertainty. The political limbo has become even more pronounced after   two back-to-back house dissolutions by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli.

Earlier, Oli had dissolved the house in December 2020, which was later reinstated in February 2021.

Fast forward to March 2021. In that month the Supreme Court invalidated the party merger between Nepal Communist Party –UML led by Oli and Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist enter) led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda.

With this decision of the Supreme Court, the unity of the two communist parties of Nepal “encouraged by the Chinese”, as the popular perception goes, fell through, shattering the dreams of those who wanted the united Nepal Communist Party (NCP) to emerge as a strong and powerful entity. However, this was not to be.

Also Read: Nepal is India's key partner, Kathmandu cannot get a better friend than Modi: BJP's Vijay Chauthaiwale

Meanwhile, Prachanda revived his party organisations and structures, thus sustaining his old party. However, in case of PM Oli, he did little to integrate and sustain his original party (UML) holistically. Unlike Prachanda who tried to bring together long-time comrades under his leadership, Oli, instead, had   reservations about his comrades, Madhav Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal, thus antagonizing them seriously.

Oli distances from MKN & Khanal

The genesis of this rift between Oli and the senior members of the party was the consistent support that Madhav Nepal and Khanal extended to Prachanda in the then Nepal Communist Party (NCP), formed in May 2018 after the merger between the UML and the Maoist Centre. Nepal and Khanal are not considered adversaries per se, but they come from the same party–the UML. Ideologically also, these politicians are poles apart.

Political vendetta continued and bitter differences grew within the UML with Oli continuously ignoring both Nepal and Khanal. Failing to get space inside the party, both Nepal and Khanal continued to form parallel party structures countering Oli at every step. Inspite of warnings from Oli and strong resistance to the activities of Khanal and Nepal, the latter kept on pursuing their agenda buttressed by Prachanda.

This division and discord carried on for a while before the Maoist Center withdrew their support extended to Oli, resulting in the Oli government slippage into minority status. Meanwhile, a badly cornered Oli managed to cultivate a section of the Janata Samabjabdi Party Nepal (JSPN) but failed to get onboard his own comrades. 

Oli seeks vote of Confidence

After the Maoist Center had withdrawn support, the government had slipped into minority, resulting in Oli seeking a vote of confidence from the House. On May 10, Oli faced the floor test.  With 28 lawmakers from the Madhav Nepal-Jhala Nath Khanal faction of his own CPN-UML party deciding to abstain, Oli could secure just 93 votes. As many as 124 votes were cast against his confidence motion. Fifteen lawmakers stayed neutral and these were from JSPN led by Mahantha Thakur faction. However, 15 JSPN lawmakers belonging to the Upendra Yadav faction voted against Oli.

Also Read: India will remain core partner of Nepal, though ties with China are improving: former minister

The May 10 incident further widened the dispute, discord and division within Oli’s party. Oli later sought clarification from the lawmakers and removed top leaders like Nepal and Khanal from the party for ignoring the party whip. After failing to win a vote of confidence from the House, Oli wrote to President Bidhya Devi Bhandari to initiate the government formation under Article 76-5 of the constitution. President called for individual lawmakers to claim government leadership where Oli and Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba pitched for their bid. Deuba was, however, unable to muster the requisite numbers to form a government immediately, since the JSPN was divided.

PM Oli gets appointed by President

When no other parties could cobble up a coalition government as per Article 76 (2), three days later President Bhandari appointed Oli prime minister of a minority government as per Article 76 (3) as the leader of the largest party in Parliament. However, instead of seeking a trust vote in the lower house as mandated by the constitution, on May 20 Oli recommended that the President call for the formation of a new government on the basis of Article 76 (5). Before the House dissolution, the President had invalidated the claims put forth by both Deuba and Oli saying that they were “insufficient”. Soon afterwards, the House was dissolved and midterm polls announced for November 13 and 20.

Criticism of the President’s decision

Observers and experts called Bhandari’s decision to dissolve the lower House of Parliament, on the advice of the Cabinet headed by Oli, a subversion of constitutional governance, that would push the country into further turmoil and potential conflict. Coming as it does on top of a virulent pandemic that Nepal is struggling to cope with, it does not augur well for future stability.

Challenging the President’s decision, Nepali Congress President Deuba on May 21 had presented his claim for the prime minister’s post with the signatures of 149 lawmakers of the dissolved House of Representatives. In addition to 61 lawmakers from the Nepali Congress, Deuba was supported by 49 from the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), 26 from the Madhav Nepal faction of CPN-UML, 12 from the Upendra Yadav faction of the JSP and one from the Rastriya Janamorcha.

The opposition alliance consists of the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), a faction of the UML led by Nepal and Khanal, a faction of the Janata Samajbadi Party led by Bhattarai and Upendra Yadav and Janamorcha Nepal. The alliance is now even considering continuing the association until elections next year, as the opposition leaders appear confident the House would be restored and snap polls in November this year won’t happen.

Future course

Some leaders of Oli’s party claim that opposition parties have reached a tentative agreement to forge a pre-election alliance dividing 100 electoral constituencies for the Congress and the rest 65 for the Maoist Centre, the Nepal faction, the Yadav group and Janamorcha Nepal led by Chitra Bahadur KC.

Talks are also going on to form a “socialist force”. But its concrete shape has not emerged yet.  Oli has since been facing criticism for exercising executive power vested in him and the president without parliamentary accountability.

Given the raging pandemic, there is a big question mark on whether elections will indeed be held as scheduled. The Oli government has promised to vaccinate all adult population before the elections but due to unavailability of the vaccine in the global market, the timelines are not certain as to when Nepal will vaccinate its eligible population. Since Nepal received the first consignment of the vaccine in January 2021 from India under the grant provision, it is still awaiting supplies of the next lot from India.

Therefore, it appears most unlikely that the government would be able stick to the November schedule for elections as the fallout of the Pandemic is likely to impact regular life and hence elections which would require   large scale gatherings and constant campaigning. The opposition parties have already announced a political and legal battle against the unconstitutional move by PM Oli and President Bhandari. Moreover, they may not be willing to participate in elections presided over by the current PM.

Meanwhile, Oli is trying to split the opposition alliance and trying to bring Nepal and Khanal back into the party.  Oli is offering a second party Chairman to Nepal so that he would muster the majority in the government as one section of the JSPN still supports Oli in case the house is reinstated. But leader Nepal has denied returning to the party based on any condition or precondition. Nepal has made it clear that he is not returning to the mother party at any cost even though he has been offered the post of Prime Minister.

All eyes at this stage are on the Supreme Court’s ongoing hearing on Oli’s decision to dissolve the house. The opposition expects that the Supreme Court would reinstate the house and order the President and Parliament to appoint Deuba as Prime Minister. If this would be the verdict, Deuba would be the Prime Minister. But Oli is trying to split the opposition faction from within and is trying to snatch at least 12 lawmakers in his kitty to stop Deuba from becoming the Prime Minister.

Therefore, a lot depends on the Supreme Court’s decision. If Oli continues as Prime Minister, he will again fail the floor test and as a result would dissolve the house again.  It is also worth noting that while those challenging Oli have remained united all this while, at the same time they are also facing questions on the degree of credibility they hold as a unified entity, especially after they come to power.

Before the final verdict of the Supreme Court arrives, there is likelihood that Oli would take a final call for party unity so that he can survive. If not, he will try his best to split the opposition block, try to draw in as many lawmakers so that Deuba fails to form the government. However, this would depend on how flexible Oli will be while calling for the larger party unity.