Nepal government changes again

K P Oli to be prime minister for 4th time, 6th tenure for Sher Bahadur Deuba

At the stroke of the midnight hour, and with the stroke of a pen, Nepal’s government has changed for the third time in a year.

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoist Centre is out of a job after his coalition partner the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) joined hands with the Nepali Congress (NC) to form a new government. 

The NC had previously ditched the UML to join up with the Maoists, and the UML had again defected to join the Maoist-led coalition earlier this year.

According to the deal that will be endorsed by both parties on Tuesday, K P Oli of the UML and Sher Bahadur Deuba of the NC will take turns being prime minister for 18 months each till the next election in 2027.

This will be 73-year-old Oli’s fourth time as prime minister, while Deuba, 78, who first became prime minister 30 years ago, will head the government for the sixth time.

Although Oli and Deuba say they want to form a national consensus government, it is not clear if Dahal will agree to bring his Maoist party into the new coalition. The NC is the largest party in Parliament, while the UML is second strongest, and the Maoists are a distant third.

Prime Minister Dahal will now have to prove his majority in Parliament within a month, but he could also resign after which President Ram Chandra Poudel will officially ask the biggest two parties to form a government.

Oli will then become prime minister for the fourth time, although the third time he was prime minister in 2021, he was in office for just one week when the Supreme Court overturned his decision to dissolve Parliament.

NC and UML leaders have said a new national government is necessary because of the need for a majority in the House to pass amendments to the constitutions to possibly dilute provisions for proportional representation in the legislature, which they say has led to instability and frequent changes in government.

However, the UML, NC and to a lesser extent the Maoists appear to be worried about the rise of populist parties and leaders in the last elections cashing in on the popular disillusionment among Nepalis with the three established parties who have ruled Nepal continuously for nearly two decades.

But the two leaders seem not to have realised that it is precisely this kind of political promiscuity that has led to frequent reshuffling of coalitions between the three main parties.

The NC and UML could also be acting to preempt possible investigations into scandals that their leaderships have been implicated in. Top NC leaders have been named in the fake refugee scandal, and the UML has been tainted by allegations of huge land grab of a former government-owned tea estate in Jhapa district.

By being in government, both parties could sideline investigations into scams that their top leaders are allegedly involved in. As per details of the Deuba-Oli nocturnal deal leaked to the press, the NC will get 10 ministries including the powerful Home Ministry and the UML will have nine including the finance portfolio. 

The fate of the fourth party in Parliament, the RSP, and its controversial Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane is also unclear at this stage. The RSP is in the present Dahal-led coalition and Lamichhane had bargained as a party with swing votes to insist on having the home minister’s post which he has used in the past year to deflect investigations into his citizenship and cooperatives scandals.

Dahal appears to have had wind of the Deuba-Oli rapprochement and had tried to convince the two leaders that they could join the coalition he led as prime minister. Till Monday, Dahal was trying to prevent a possible NC-UML alliance, giving speeches calling for a unity of left parties.

There could be a geopolitical angle to this, since the Chinese have openly said they favour Nepal’s Communist parties to unite. And because of this, India and the West have worked behind the scenes to prevent left-wing unity.

The UML-NC ‘coup’ would prevent the UML and the Maoists from being in the same government.

There is uncertainty about the abrupt recall of eight NC-appointed ambassadors last month by the UML-Maoist coalition. Now that the NC is back in power, will some of them be reinstated?

Another uncertainty surrounds the seven provincial governments which have risen and fallen in the past year, mostly in relation to which coalition is in power in Kathmandu. The NC-UML deal is also said to include a proportional distribution of provincial governments, even though that goes completely against the spirit of federalism and political devolution as enshrined in the Constitution.