Coalition calculation

Three days after the Nepali Congress (NC) Central Working Committee announced it would leave it up to its local committees to decide on candidates for local elections in May, the Maoist Center (MC) Chair Pushpa Kamal brought out his trump card: if the Congress did not agree on common candidates he would forge an alliance with the opposition UML.

Like a jilted partner in a love triangle, the Maoist Centre is playing the NC and UML against each other ahead of the 13 May local elections. In this, Chitwan is a microcosm of what is happening across Nepal — the Maoists are too weak to go it alone, some in the Congress do not want an electoral alliance with them, and despite its split the UML still has a strong party structure down to the grassroots.

Whenever he does not get what he wants from the NC, Dahal threatens to join hands with the UML’s K P Oli. It was a Maoist-UML alliance that swept the 2017 federal election, and the two parties formally united to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) which got dismantled in 2021 by the Supreme Court after a prolonged power struggle between Oli and Dahal.

With local polls only a little more than a month away, coalition partners Nepali Congress, Maoists, Unified Socialist and the Janata Samajwadi Party met on Tuesday to try to decide on common candidates. But all five coalition members want different things to ensure maximum benefit for their own party.

An electoral alliance means coalition partners agree to jointly select candidates for mayors, municipality chairs and other positions so they do not cancel each other out. The NC thinks it can win a majority on its own. Dahal has boasted he can do the same, but his party needs the Congress more than the Congress needs him. But the Congress is also wary of the UML’s strength.

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Senior Congress leaders like Shekhar Koirala, who challenged Sher Bahadur Deuba for party chairmanship during the recent NC general convention, have urged the prime minister against an electoral alliance. He wants local Congress leaders to have full authority to decide whether they choose to run independently, coordinate with coalition partners or with parties outside the governing alliance. 

In 2017, NC lost the key constituency of Pokhara, where the party’s candidate Ramji Kunwar lost the election to the UML candidate despite having formed an electoral alliance with the Maoists. This is why the Congress hierarchy is averse to partnering with the Maoists. 

Similarly, the UML and the Maoists had formed separate alliances against the Congress in Biratnagar local polls, but Congress candidates won both chair and deputy chair there in 2017. The Maoists allied with the UML against the Congress in Tanahun’s Byas Municipality, but the Congress still won both chair and deputy-chair.  

For the Maoists, any electoral alliance with any party is a means to an end. The 2017 election results indicate that while the Maoists would gain from an electoral alliance with the NC, Maoist support will not guarantee the Nepali Congress local wins. 

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One of these is Chitwan’s Bharatpur Metropolitan City. In 2017, Maoist supporters disrupted the vote counting process, tearing up ballot papers to secure the mayorship for Dahal’s daughter Renu Dahal with Congress support, who was the weaker candidate.

Many families who fled the Maoist insurgency in the mountains moved down and settled in Chitwan, and it is regarded as a Congress stronghold. Bharatpur, especially, has a strong Congress base and many there are not happy with their party leadership once again allowing Renu Dahal to win just because of coalition calculations in Kathmandu. The NC’s Chitwan committee decided on Sunday that it will go it alone to contest Bharatpur mayorship.  

It is an indication of just how opportunistic electoral alliances are that while the Maoists and Congress colluded to allow Renu Dahal to win Bharatpur in local elections in 2017, the Maoists went on to partner with the UML for federal elections. 

Which is why what happens in Bharatpur during May’s local elections is so symbolic. If the Congress does not agree to the Maoists on an electoral alliance in Bharatpur, and the Maoists lose the city, the governing coalition will likely collapse. 

Ramji Dahal

Translated from the Nepali original in by Shristi Karki.