Oli-Dahal political déjà vu

Maoist chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal and CPN (UML) chair K P Oli are back in a coalition government, ousting Sher Bahadur Deuba and his Nepali Congress. Photo: GOPEN RAI

On Sunday, Maoist Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal was appointed Nepal’s Prime Minister by President Bidya Devi Bhandari with support from the UML, effectively putting an end to the very coalition government formed to oust the UML's KP Oli from power in 2021.

Dahal finally has his coveted third term as Prime Minister, having last held the position in 2016. With support from seven political parties, his left-led alliance has a 169-majority in the House, even as it is only the third-largest in Parliament with 32 elected members.

Until Saturday, a day before the President’s deadline to form a majority government ended, Dahal had maintained his commitment to the NC-led coalition. But the Maoist supremo did a dramatic U-turn when he and NC chair and prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba failed to reach an agreement over which one of them would become PM first under the new government.

Insiders said Dahal said he was going off to lunch and would return to continue the negotiations, but instead Deuba and other NC members heard he had gone to K P Oli's residence in Balkot to get his support.

Dahal’s desire to become prime minister seems to have overruled everything else -- ideology, principles, and the 'liberation' of the people for which he waged a ruinous 10-year insurgency. As soon as Oli offered him the first stab at prime ministership on the condition of breaking away from the former alliance, all bets were off.

“The best interests of the party and party leaders have become secondary to the Chairman’s personal interests,” says a Maoist official. “Breaking the alliance just so he could get to be Prime Minister was a shameful political act.”

Had Dahal been a bit more patient, not only would he have been prime minister anyway in two years, his party's nominees would also have bagged the posts of President and House Speaker, not to mention plum ministerial positions over the next five years. Now, it will be Oli who will be pulling the strings on appointments even if Dahal is prime minister.

A continued alliance with the NC would have benefited of many more of the Maoist rank and file. With this deal, only Dahal benefits. As of Monday morning, a Maoist Centre meeting has decided to appoint party vice-chair Narayan Kaji Shrestha deputy prime minister.

While Dahal has bagged premiership at the expense of his own party, Oli — whose UML is the second-largest in Parliament after the November election — has shrewdly  gained the upperhand once again, playing the long game by agreeing to give Dahal the first go at leading the government while bagging plum political positions for his party in the process.

Indeed, Dahal may be in the the prime minister's seat, but Oli is the one calling the shots.

And with a left-led alliance now in power, Sher Bahadur Deuba have been out-maneuvered even though he has been considered to be a clever deal-maker, as evidenced by the five times he has been prime minister from the days of the monarchy in 1997.

Just like Dahal, Deuba’s quest to lead the government for the sixth time left him unable to make an objective assessment of his and his party’s political future. Now, the NC which won only 23 FPTP seats in the election, finds itself in the opposition despite being the largest party in the House.

The big loser in all this has been Madhav Kumar Nepal who split from the UML to back the Deuba-led coalition last year, and was angling for a senior appointments for his CPN (Unified Socialist). Dahal and Oli largely ignored Nepal as being a bit player, his clout diminished further by his party's power performance in elections.

Nepal subsequently grew closer with Dahal, breaking from the UML to eventually launch his own political party. Now, his party after a poor show in the local as well as national polls finds itself without national recognition in Parliament or the backing of a multi-party alliance.

Had Nepal not put his entire weight behind Dahal and focused on an election strategy and party expansion, perhaps CPN-US would not have missed the chance to become a national party.

A secretariat meeting conducted after Dahal’s abrupt exit from the coalition meeting in Baluwatar and subsequent foray to Oli’s residence in Balkot on Sunday was unable to dispel the uncertainty regarding the future of the CPN-US.

“After a serious discussion regarding recent political developments, we have decided to move forward in the best interests of the country, our people, and the party,” read its vague statement.

The UML-Maoist alliance has also blindsided senior NC leader Ram Chandra Poudel, who had been banking on continuing the coalition with Dahal as Prime Minister so that he could become President, making his own backroom deals with Maoist and CPN-US leaders since before the election.

In the aftermath of the election, as the top political leaders negotiated to form a government in the absence of a clear majority in parliament, there had been much discourse about how a more stable government could be formed through an NC-UML alliance. After all, such an alliance had been possible in 2013.

The Maoists make up only 11% of the 275-member Parliament, so the appointment of Dahal as PM is contrary to the people’s mandate. It has brought into question why elections should even be held when the results have no bearing on who leads the government.

But this is not the first time something of this nature has happened in Nepali politics. RPP leaders Lokendra Bahadur Chand and Surya Bahadur Thapa were both elevated to prime minister in 1997 by the UML and NC respectively after the parties that fought to restore multiparty democracy polarised Nepal's politics.

as In the next 30 days, Dahal will have to obtain a vote of confidence from the House per Article 76(4) of Nepal’s constitution. So, there could still be some surprises. He will need support from all seven parties that were behind his bid to become prime minister, which means more murky wheeling and dealing.

Dahal, whose idea of democracy was rooted in the armed struggle, does not have the best record with human rights, freedom of speech, and Nepal’s larger political process.

But now, as prime minister, he needs to see beyond his personal ambition and keep the lines of communication between Baluwatar, Budhanilkantha and Balkot open. This will be in the best interest of Nepal’s democracy, federalism, and republicanism.