Nepal’s ‘accidental prime minister’
Nepal’s Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba won a trust vote in the House of Representatives on Sunday, putting an end to more than two years of political turmoil in the country.
Deuba filed a motion to seek the vote of confidence when the Parliament reconvened on Sunday, following a Supreme court verdict that restored the Lower House dissolved by his predecessor KP Oli on 22 May.
Deuba needed a simple majority of 136 out of 271 members of the current House members to pass the floor test. He received 165 votes out of the 249 members present in Parliament on Sunday. 83 lawmakers voted against him, and 1 lawmaker did not vote.
“Deuba is an accidental prime minister, no one has any great expectations from him. We just hope that he will not do the country more harm,” says political analyst Puranjan Acharya.
Deuba received votes from lawmakers of the Nepali Congress, Maoist Center, both the Yadav-Bhattarai and Thakur factions of the JSP, as well as Durga Poudel, the only parliamentarian representing the Rastriya Janamorcha Party in the House. 22 lawmakers from the UML also cast their votes for the Prime Minister.
Former Prime Minister KP Oli, who was not present inside Parliament for the majority of the House session, walked into the hall as Speaker Agni Sapkota was explaining the voting process to the House members following Prime Minister Deuba’s final address.
Deuba will remain Prime Minister until the next general election in early 2023, and the country has avoided holding expensive early elections.
“The time has come for us to put the past behind us, and unite beyond party lines to confront the challenges of Covid, the economy and natural disasters in the country,” Deuba told the House before the vote.
However, even within days of becoming Nepal’s prime minister for the fifth time at age 75, Deuba has already faced criticism for releasing Nepali Congress members jailed for corruption and murder.
Critics have said that if he was really serious about ensuring vaccines for all, he would have prioritised the appointment of a can-do Health Minister instead of appeasing his Maoist partners with key portfolios.
Pradeep Gyawali, who served as foreign minister in the K P Oli cabinet, also addressed Parliament on Sunday, asking MPs not to give Deuba the vote since he was “appointed by judicial proclamation and not the people’s representatives in Parliament”.
He also warned UML MPs who voted for Deuba that they would no longer be accepted in the party.
In a surprise move, UML vice-chair Bhim Rawal, who led the Madhav Nepal faction on the UML in a task force to keep the party intact, resigned from Parliament.
"In my nearly half-century long political career, I have experienced and faced many political ups and downs and setbacks. Throughout it all, I have worked, believing that our political mechanisms would be dedicated to the national interest, independence, self-respect and the well-being of the Nepali people,” said Rawal outside Parliament.
Reading out his resignation letter outside Parliament, Rawal said that Nepalis are disgusted by the “unbridled and immoral politics of the greedy, self-serving, vindictive, and conspiratorial political leadership at the highest levels”.
Many UML leaders like Rawal found themselves between a rock and a hard place after Deuba suddenly called for a House vote. On the one hand, they did not want to support Oli but on the other, voting for Deuba would have split the party in two.
Earlier on Sunday, a Standing Committee meeting of the UML had directed its MPs to cast their votes against Deuba, even as leaders of its breakaway Nepal faction reaffirmed their support and intention to vote for the Prime Minister.
Till the last moment, the UML task force was trying to patch up the ego-clash between Nepal and Oli that led to this political debacle. They even offered to appoint an alternative candidate for prime minister from among Bhim Rawal, Subhas Nembang or Bishnu Poudel to replace Oli. But Nepal shot down the idea.
Another UML MP Ram Kumari Jhankri was prepared to be evicted from the party to support Deuba in the House vote, saying “it is the duty of our party to support the government”. Twenty-three anti-Oli UML members had signed the writ petition at the Supreme Court demanding restoration of the House and Deuba being appointed PM.
Meanwhile, Pushpa Kamal Dahal in his address before the vote delivered a pointed criticism of President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s decision to disregard 149 signatories from the opposition alliance and their claim to form a Deuba-led government in May.
“We told the President that there were no ifs or buts when it comes to the Constitution,” Dahal said. “This was a mockery of democracy."
As it turned out, with the vote of the entire JSP (including the pro-Oli Mahant Thakur faction) Deuba did not even need the UML’s support to win the House confidence test.
Although Mahanta Thakur extended his support to Prime Minister Deuba, he added that Deuba had been appointed “not through the people’s mandate, but the Supreme Court’s order”.
“This is a power struggle between you,” Thakur said. “The oppressed communities, the Nepali public will not gain anything from this.”
The Prime Minister has so far filled four of his cabinet seats, appointing Nepali Congress leaders Bal Krishna Khand and Gyanendra Bahadur Karki Home as Minister and Law Minister respectively. The Maoist Centre’s Pampha Bhusal and Janardhan Sharma were appointed Energy Minister and Finance Minister respectively.
Deuba, leading a five-party alliance of 149 MPs--from the Nepali Congress, the Maoist Centre, as well breakaway factions of the JSP and the UML--had filed a writ petition on 24 May after President Bidya Bhandari thwarted claims from both Oli and and the opposition alliance of a House majority to form the next government.
Mohan Shrestha of the royal-right RPP also says that Deuba’s prime ministership may have ended instability for now, but he does not inspire much hope.
Shrestha says: “His track record shows that Deuba has tried, tested and failed as prime minister many times. But he does have a final chance to clean up his tainted political career.”
Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.