Nepal’s post-breakup politics

Leaders of Oli-led UML gather for a photo after a Standing Committee meeting on 24 August. Photo: PRADEEP GYAWALI/TWITTER

Nepal’s Election Commission on Wednesday evening officially recognised and certified Madhav Kumar Nepal’s UML (Socialist) and Mahanta Thakur’s Loktantrik Samajwadi (LSP) parties.

Nepal’s disagreement with K P Oli ended up splitting Nepal’s largest party,  even though Oli has managed to woo back a dozen or so of the most influential Nepal-backers.

In almost identical but reverse symmetry, Thakur had sided with Oli, and that too ended up splitting his JSP so that he had to form a new one.

The registration of two new political parties has taken the total number of political parties in Nepal to 97. However, the way political leaders including Prime Minister Deuba, and Oli when he was head of government, bent constitutional rules to suit their short-term power games does not bode well for Nepal’s democracy, and future governance.

Earlier on Wednesday, 59 lawmakers from the UML had identified themselves in favour of the UML (Socialist) at the Election Commission, while 14 MPs from the JSP were verified for the LSP.

Madhav Kumar Nepal and other leaders arrived at the Election Commission on Wednesday to verify for the Nepal-led UML (Socialist) party. Photo: RSS

The two new entities were able to split from their mother parties after Prime Minister Deuba of the centrist Nepali Congress (NC) bypassed the Constitution with an ordinance last week allowing political parties to split with only 20% support from the Central Committee and the parliamentary parties.

To do this, Parliament had to be adjourned despite a crucial budget debate. But he needed to go through with it to accommodate Nepal’s group in his five-party alliance government as a reward for mutinying against Oli, and bringing down his government in June.

Most political moves have something to do with elections in mind, and these power dynamics are also dictated by polls. Some see Deuba’s move to split Nepal’s largest party, the UML, as a shrewd move ahead of polls scheduled for 2023.

But Sher Bahadur Deuba also got badly exposed for hypocrisy. In 2020, he had spoken out vehemently against K P Oli’s attempt to pass a similar ordinance, and his ordinance was sharply criticised across the political aisle, including from within his own NC. 

These new circumstances will not only impact how the UML and JSP will move forward, but have far-reaching consequences for Nepal’s political and parliamentary processes. 

Cabinet expansion

It has been 40 days since he assumed office, but Deuba seems to be in no particular hurry to expand his Cabinet beyond just the four ministers he has from the Maoists and his own NC. 

However, we have word that he is working behind the scenes, trying to divide up ministerial positions, balance competing demands from his five-party alliance that propelled him to prime ministership for the fifth time

Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal attend newly-appointed Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's oath of office in July. Photo: AMIT MACHAMASI

There is no doubt that his ordinance move was meant to facilitate his ally Madhav Nepal’s participation in government. NC leaders admit that Deuba will move to fill the Cabinet quickly now that the UML split is official. 

"We had been waiting for Madhav Nepal," says NC joint general secretary and close Deuba confidante Prakash Sharan Mahat, “the cabinet should now be complete within the next couple of days.”

UML (Socialist) leader Veduram Bhusal says that although there has not been a formal decision to join Deuba’s government, the party will remain in the coalition. 

“Madhav Nepal played a significant role in forming the current government, and the government is even stronger now that our party has been officially recognised,” he said.

Parliament serves a full term

In July, Deuba received 165 votes in Parliament to pass the floor test, including from 22 lawmakers from the Nepal faction of the UML and surprisingly, from the entire pro-Oli Mahanta Thakur faction within the JSP. 

That Deuba got that support beyond the required simple majority of 138 votes increased the likelihood that Parliament will after all be able to serve its full term after Oli dissolved it twice amid fierce infighting within his party.

Possible UML reunification

The UML was established in 1990 after the unity of two communist parties and had split once before in 1997 only to be reunited three years later. 

So, there is still a slight possibility that history will be repeated.

Indeed, as Madhav Nepal moves forward with his rump party, Oli has also been planning his next political move. 

The former prime minister has been stepping up party activities standing shoulder to shoulder with his enemies and staunch former Madhav Nepal allies like Bhim Rawal, Astalaxmi Shakya, Surendra Pandey, Ghanshyam Bhusal, Yogesh Bhattarai, Gokarna Bista, and Raghuji Pant.

These gentlemen, and one lady, obviously saw their electoral prospects would be brighter if they remained in the original UML with Oli.

New electoral alliances

Besides negotiations on government formation, leaders of the Maoist (Centre), UML (Socialist), and JSP have already begun to explore the possibility of forming an electoral alliance ahead of the polls in 2023. 

In fact, political analyst Shyam Shrestha believes that Mohan Baidha and Netra Bikram Chand factions of the Maoists could also join the alliance if Madhav Nepal’s party “adopts a slightly more revolutionary path”.

Considering the similar ideological backgrounds of leaders like Upendra Yadav, Baburam Bhattarai, Ashok Rai, Mahendra Rai Yadav, and Rakam Chemjong, a ‘socialist’ alliance indeed looks possible —at least on paper. 

However, the implosion of the ambitious UML-Maoist (Centre) merger into the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) that barely lasted three years has made leftist leaders wary of forging similar marriages of convenience.

Says Giriraj Mani Pokhrel of the Maoists (Centre): “The UML and the Maoist (Centre) have both learned that unity is only possible if all parties involved are on the same page regarding political, ideological and organisational issues, and that such a meeting of minds lasts.”

Transliteration by Shristi Karki from the Himal Khabar original in Nepali.