Old wine in old bottle in Nepal politics
A month after the downfall of his government, K P Oli's inability to keep his party together is still rocking Nepal's larger politics with aftershocks.
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has repeated transgressions of his predecessor to allow political parties to split through ordinance -- exactly the sin his five-party alliance accused Oli of committing to oust him.
Deuba ended the Parliament session, the budget debate be damned, just so that he could get President Bidya Devi Bhandari to sign the ordinance that that will now allow his ally Madhav Kumar Nepal to form a new party.
The ordinance allows political parties to split even if only 20% of the Central Committee and the parliamentary party support it — obviously meant to allow Madhav Nepal’s UML (Socialist) party to break away from Oli’s mainstream UML so it can join the government.
But Deuba’s move has been condemned across the political spectrum, including from within his own Nepali Congress (NC) where there was scathing rebuke from senior members.
‘It doesn’t matter who does it, it is wrong to pass an ordinance like this in a democracy. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now,’ the NC’s Gagan Thapa posted on Twitter. ‘Anyone who stood against Oli’s moves back then has no right to support it at this time.’
The NC’s Shekhar Koirala described his own boss’ decision to end the Parliament session to directly influence the division of another political party as being ‘against the culture of the Nepal Congress’.
संसद अधिवेशन हठात अन्य गरेर संसद छल्दै अध्यादेश ल्याउनु गलत!हिजो गलत,आज गलत,सधैं गलत,जसले गरेपनि गलत 👎️— Gagan Thapa (@thapagk) August 18, 2021
हिजो ओलीले ल्याउँदा गलत भन्ने,त्यसको विरुद्धमा उभिने कसैलाई पनि आज समर्थन गर्ने हक छैन/हुँदैन।समर्थन गर्ने भए त्यतिवेला विरोध गरेकोमा सार्वजनिक माफी माग्नुपर्छ।
Experts agree that ordinances passed to serve short-term partisan interests will have far-reaching consequences for Nepal’s political and parliamentary processes.
“The prime minister passed this ordinance allowing parties to split with just 20% support, what if in future other ordinances bring down the required votes to 10%, or even 5%,” asks political analyst Puranjan Acharya.
Oli seems to have gotten wind of Deuba’s move, and on Tuesday expelled 14 party members including Madhav Nepal before that could happen. That sealed the fate of the UML.
“We tried our best until the final moment to keep the party united, but K P Oli closed the door,” Nepal said at a virtual public sector meeting on Tuesday.
However, Deuba’s supporters in the party saw it as a shrewd move to split the powerful UML so that his party would be better placed in elections in 2023.
Nepal moved quickly on Wednesday to register his CPN-UML (Socialist) at the Election Commission with 95 Central Committee members, 58 among which have switched over with him from Oli’s UML.
However, popular second-echelon leaders like Bhim Rawal, Gokarna Bista and Ghanashyam Bhusal, who had been mediating between the two leaders, have not joined Nepal’s new party. They appear to have feared a backlash for supporting the NC, and also seen better prospects in elections if they stayed on in the UML.
Ironically, Deuba’s ordinance seems to have also directly benefited Mahanta Thakur, who had also been demoted from the JSP’s Central Committee for supporting Oli.
If it were not for the ordinance, Thakur would not have been able to muster the 40% of parliamentary party membership that was earlier required to register his own JSP (Democratic).
The UML split despite efforts by the rank-and-file to keep it together only because Oli and Nepal could not get along. Nepal accused Oli of authoritarianism, and Oli was angry about Nepal siding with the opposition alliance to unseat him. But at the heart of it was an ego-clash between Nepal's top communists.
'Nepal’s communist movement is built on the revolutionary vision of our forefathers and the sacrifices of thousands of martyrs and warriors, and we want to prevent it from collapse,' Madhav Nepal said in a statement. “To achieve our goal, and to move in the direction of scientific socialism, we must take firm steps towards our national independence and self-respect.’
The UML was established in 1990 after the unity of two communist factions, and split before in 1997 only to be reunited three years later. There is no reason why it cannot do so again if Oli and Nepal are out of the picture.
Deuba’s five-party coalition has undoubtedly been playing the long game, with eyes on the 2023 local, provincial and federal polls and to recoup its drubbing in 2017. The bigger question now is how the hydra-headed five party alliance is going to divide up the spoils of government ahead of those elections.
But as farsighted as Deuba may be about political strategy, he has not been as efficient in forming a government to tackle the country’s multiple crises. He has been unable to expand his cabinet beyond four ministers, and Nepal’s foreign and labour ministries at a crucial time remain without a leader even as thousands of Nepalis trapped in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan await repatriation.
The delay is due to Deuba having to balance conflicting claims to senior ministerial berths from his alliance partners. He has to appease his once arch-enemy Pushpa Kamal Dahal, accommodate the kingmaker JSP, and reward Nepal for bringing in the swing votes to oust Oli.
All the while, he has to keep rival factions within his own party led by Ram Chandra Poudel at bay.
This political disarray among Nepal’s three biggest parties is to the advantage of the royal-Hindu-right parties who want to cash in on public disillusionment by flagging secularism, federalism and even republicanism as being unsuitable for Nepal.
Rabindra Mishra of the alternative Bibeksheel-Sajha party has felt the public pulse, and knows there is considerable support for Nepal reverting to a Hindu state, if not a monarchy, and called for a referendum.
Factions in the other parties also sympathise with this potentially potent election agenda, some more openly than others. The fierce reaction from mainstream parties against Mishra shows just how insecure they have become, but even this threat to roll back the Constitution has not been enough to end the infighting between and within them.
Like all alliances, this will be fickle, driven by the self-interest of politicians with one eye on elections.