New chapter in Nepal political saga

An explainer on how the election for Nepal’s new president has ruptured the ruling coalition

Ram Chandra Poudel, the Nepali Congress nominee for president, files his candidacy alongside NC chair Sher Bahadur Deuba and Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal on Saturday. Photos: GOPEN RAI

Nepal’s third president is most likely going to be Ram Chandra Paudel of the Nepali Congress (NC), but this will unravel the current six-party ruling coalition.

The back-stabbing, power-sharing promises and backroom deals in the run-up to elections on 9 March have also shown that Nepal’s politics is still an opaque gerontocratic patriarchy in which a handful of superannuated men shuffle the cards every now and then.

On Saturday, the UML also put forward its own presidential candidate: former speaker Subhas Nembang. But given the arithmetic of the new political alignment, Paudel’s win appears assured.

The long saga that led to Paudel’s candidacy was the result of a triangular fight between the NC, the UML and the Maoist parties which have ruled Nepal in unstable coalitions since the end of the insurgency in 2006.

Being the largest party in Parliament, the NC had been outwitted by the UML (the second largest party) which broke an electoral partnership with the Maoists (the third largest in the House). The fact that the post of a ceremonial president was deemed so politically critical for all three parties shows just how cynical Nepali politics has become — all three need a pliant president in order to use the constitutional powers of the office for their own ends.

All the main leaders in the fray: Ram Chandra Paudel and Sher Bahadur Deuba, K P Oli of the UML, Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoists, the CPN (Unified Socialist) Madhav Kumar Nepal, Upendra Yadav of the JSP and Mahanta Thakur of the LSP have all been in an out of government for the past 17 years.

Paudel, Deuba, Nepal, Oli and Thakur are all above 70 and have been in active politics in Nepal for even longer. One could say that Nepal is in the state it is in because of these senior politicians, yet they refuse to let go.

This is in direct contravention of the strongest message of elections in 2022 in which Nepali voters made their preference for a generational change in leadership and a departure from traditional politics felt. Although the new independent RSP has 19 seats in Parliament, the power play at the top is following the old way of doing things. 

The story so far goes like this:

2020: The Nepal Communist Party (formed with the unity of the Maoist Centre and UML after the 2017 elections) starts falling apart due to a power struggle between Pushpa Kamal Dahal and K P Oli

2021: Oli tries to dissolve Parliament but the Supreme Court blocks his move, and the NCP is bifurcated again into its constituent parties. Soon after, the UML also split.

2022: The Maoists and NC form an electoral alliance for local, provincial and federal elections. The NC comes out as the first party, the UML second and the Maoists third. The fourth place is taken by the RSP which was formed only 5 months before editions. 

December 2022: The UML’s Oli pulls a fast one by proposing Dahal as prime minister in a 7-party coalition that includes the RSP and the royal-right RPP. In return, Oli secures an agreement from Dahal to reserve the presidency for the UML, and for Oli to take over as PM after 2.5 years. The NC is left out in the cold.

January 2023: The NC and the Maoists realise that the UML will have the presidency, prime ministership, house speaker and other posts by 2025. The NC, therefore, gives a vote of confidence to Dahal in Parliament, meaning there is no opposition. The NC proposes that Dahal can remain prime minister for five years in return for its candidate to be president.

February 2023: Dahal changes his tune and starts stressing that the president should be a “consensus candidate” even as there is a slew of high-level visits by Indian and American officials.

18 February: Oli makes a last-ditch attempt to outwit Dahal by proposing Madhav Kumar Nepal as president so the 7-party coalition remains intact, and the NC continues to be sidelined.  

24 February: Oli’s ploy does not work as Dahal is convinced by Deuba and NC to allow him to be prime minister for most of his tenure in return for NC’s candidate to be president and the JSP to have the vice-presidency.

This being Nepal, anything can still happen till the 9 March election for president, and Oli could still pull a habit out of the hat. But it looks like a foregone conclusion that Ram Chandra Paudel will be the third president of Nepal.

The eight parties including the NC and Maoists that backed the deal are now on track to replace the 7-party coalition in the government. Some of the parties in the new lineup are already in the current coalition, although the UML, RSP and RPP are likely to stay in the opposition.

The UML Central Committee Secretariat meeting on Saturday decided not to leave the 7-party coalition just yet, saying that it was just proposing Nembang as its candidate as power the earlier agreement with the Maoists.

"The ruling coalition still exists. The 8-party alliance has not been formed, there is nothing in writing yet. Anything can happen between now and 9 March," says UML spokesperson Prithvi Subba Gurung.

The elephants in the room are Nepal’s two big neighbours and the United States. The Chinese have made no secret that they would like the UML and Maoists to stay united, and in fact, its ambassador in Kathmandu lobbied to prevent the NCP from splitting in 2021. 

Intensifying Sino-American rivalry means Washington would like to counter that by keeping the NC and the Maoists together - however different the ideologies of the left and right-wing parties may be. Strategically, New Delhi would go along with the American strategy.

If no candidate gets a majority in the 9 March voting, a re-election will be held on 10 March. The vice presidential election will be held on 17 March. The Election Commission is readying for the election in the Parliament premises in New Baneswor. 

Of 884 voters in the electoral college who will cast their ballots for the president and vice-president, 334 are from the federal House of Representatives and 550 from provincial assemblies. The votes are weighted with members of the federal parliament having 79 points for a total of 26,400, while provincial assemblies get 48 points each for 26,386 votes. 

"It is good that a former prime minister is not a candidate, and also the NC and UML have put forward respectable candidates," says former Nepali ambassador to India Nilamber Acharya. "However, the way this process has been conducted it portends more instability because of the bad blood, suspicion, and distrust."