A crucible of fragile coalitions
Nepalis are wondering who won and who lost after the Supreme Court on 7 March effectively ruled that the Nepal Communist Party revert to its constituent elements: the UML and Maoist Centre. Even the leaders of the parties are confused.
Within 24 hours of the court decision, a party that was cleft into two factions suddenly went back to its status three years ago. Leaders who were caught on the wrong side had to slink back to their mother party.
Despite judicial interventions to scrap the NCP on Sunday, and to reinstate the House on 23 February, Nepali politics looks as confused as ever. To be sure, Prime Minister Oli suffered a setback with the House restitution, but he got a respite with the party re-split.
His erstwhile UML comrades Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhalnath Khanal, who had defected to the Pushpa Kamal Dahal camp, have been forced to return to the fold.
The biggest relief must be felt by Chief Election Commissioner Dinesh Thapaliya, who had been undecided for over a month on whether the Oli or the Dahal faction would get the NCP party name and election symbol. He sprang into action after Sunday’s court verdict and scrapped the NCP altogether.
Even Dahal himself must be feeling less stressed now. The bruising political battles with an aggressive Oli was taking its toll, but he is now in sole control of his own independent party. It is like he has moved from a big house of an abusive landlord to his own small shed.
The biggest, and sorest, losers must be Oli’s former UML comrades and former prime ministers Nepal, Khanal, and the firebrand MP from Achham, Bhim Rawal. The bad blood between them and Oli will surely affect the internal dynamics of the re-instituted UML.
The 7 March decision transformed Oli from a majority prime minister to a coalition leader. It is intriguing that even though the Maoist Centre has sent feelers to the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) to form a coalition, it has not withdrawn its pre-unification support for the UML.
Oli himself just needs to win the support of the JSP to remain prime minister, while Dahal will need both the NC and JSP. Dahal is hedging his bets: he does not want to lose a no-confidence vote since he cannot push another one for a year, and Oli may once more suddenly announce early elections.
The wily Oli is already looking at the option of splitting the JSP vote to garner the number needed to stay on as prime minister. With 121 MPs in the House, Oli just needs 17 more votes to cobble a coalition, which he can get even if the rest of the JSP’s anti-Oli leaders are against joining. He can do that by agreeing to the JSP demand to free Resham Chaudhari, who is in detention for the Tikapur massacre of policemen in 2015.
The key player in the formation of the next government will be the JSP and not the NC or the Maoist Centre. In fact, the JSP can even form a government with the NC and the Maoists. Within the UML, the Nepal-Khanal camp do not have the numbers any more to challenge Oli till the next party convention.
Despite the involvement of the three organs of the state – the judiciary, the executive and the legislative – Nepal’s politics is more tangled than ever. When even a two-thirds majority government could not deliver on stability in the past three years, it would be foolish to expect a fragile coalition to do so now.
Which is why Oli may have been right: the best option may be fresh polls. If it is overseen by an all-party election government, it could deliver a fresh mandate and restore a derailed polity.