Government in installments

WHO IS WHO? President Bidya Devi Bhandari, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, Nepal Army Chief Prabhu Ram Sharma, Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana, House Speaker Agni Sapkota and Deputy Mayor of Kathmandu Hari Prabha Khadgi at Indra Jatra this week.

More than two months after Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba took office to lead a five-party coalition, he has not even been able to form a complete Cabinet. He was thought to have amassed a lot of experience in coalition bargaining during his previous five tenures as prime minister.

But this time, he is having a difficult time untangling the knots within knots within the alliance. First, he has had to divide up ministerial portfolios among his coalition partners which turned out to be a major hurdle.

After the government was formed in mid-July, Deuba’s Nepali Congress (NC) and the Maoist Centre (MC) divided up the powerful finance, energy, home and law ministries among themselves. He then appointed a loyalist to be state minister of health, and on Wednesday he had to hurriedly appoint Narayan Khadka as foreign minister to represent Nepal at the United Nations General Assembly. Khadka was named, sworn in by the president, assumed office and departed for New York all within 12 hours.

The ministerial appointments had been stalled because Upendra Yadav of the Janata Samajbadi Party had wanted the post, which he has held twice before, for himself. However, Deuba appears to have finally got all four parties who want their members in the Cabinet to agree on a quota: eight each of the NC and MC, and 6 each for the JSP and the UML (US) of Madhav Kumar Nepal.

However, this still leaves the question of which party gets which of the remaining ministries. Predictably, the JSP and the UML (US) want the ministries with the biggest budgets: education, agriculture, transport and physical infrastructure. Since this is going to be a coalition that will oversee elections in 2023, the parties all want ministries with either power, or money, or both.

A Cabinet meeting on Tuesday decided abruptly to recall 12 ambassadors, including those to the US, UK, India and China appointed by KP Oli when he was prime minister. All are political appointees, and among the envoys being recalled is Deuba’s own mother-in-law Pratibha Rana in Tokyo.

Analysts say one reason for this purge of ambassadors is to offer plum posts for further bargaining to mollify coalition partners not satisfied with their allocated ministerial portfolios. Deuba also has to contend with ministership demands from within his own NC, especially his rival Ram Chandra Paudel’s faction.

There has been outrage and ridicule in social media and from commentators about Prime Minister Deuba adding ministers in installments. Former prime minister Oli, who was ousted by Deuba, has been the most scathing in his criticism.

The prime minister’s job is not easy. He had to suspend Parliament in the middle of the budget session in July so that he could pass an ordinance amending the Constitution to allow parties to split if they commanded only 20% of the membership of their parliamentary party. But that ordinance, which needs to be ratified by Parliament within 60 days, has now become an albatross around Deuba’s neck.

Madhav Nepal of the UML (US) on whose behalf the party split ordinance had been introduced so he could legally break away from Oli’s UML, is now worried that if it is not ratified his new party will not have legal standing. Nepal is also nervous about a writ filed in the Supreme Court by Oli, and if a verdict makes his party split unconstitutional.

Yadav of the JSP, meanwhile, wants the ordinance scrapped before Cabinet expansion so that disgruntled members of his own party who do not get their preferred ministerships do not break away.

Coalition members had said Cabinet expansion would happen on Wednesday, but negotiations appear to have stalled because of Madhav Nepal and Upendra Yadav wanting different things for their own partisan reasons.