Planting seeds of democracy
Four members from Madhav Kumar Nepal’s Unified Socialists including Urban Development Minister Ram Kumari Jhakri and Tourism Minister Prem Ale resigned from the Cabinet this week to make way for new ministers from their party.
This followed their initial defiance of the party’s order recalling them, and hinted at problems in Nepal’s new party even after its local election wins in Pokhara and Hetauda. However, there has been dissatisfaction within the party regarding the 5-party alliance’s inability to fetch it better election results.
Now, the cabinet reshuffle has revealed fissures within the party that broke away from the UML last year. Prime Minister Deuba of the Nepali Congress himself facilitated the split by overriding a constitutional provision with an ordinance so that UML dissidents could break away and join his coalition.
Deuba’s first year in office has been rocky. He took over from the UML’s K P Oli after a long and bruising power struggle in the midst of the pandemic.
In the past year, 90% of Nepal’s eligible population has been fully vaccinated against Covid, lowering the risk of another wave. Deuba is credited with holding local elections despite initial reluctance of his Maoist and Unified Socialist coalition partners.
Read also: Deuba’s mixed report card, Editorial
But efforts to revive the economy have been stymied by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Making matters worse was Finance Minister Janardan Sharma seeking to oust the Rastra Bank governor, which had Deuba's blessings. Sharma is also knee-deep in a budgetary scandal.
Despite all the trouble and the differences within alliance members after local elections in May, Deuba’s five-party alliance initially formed to oust KP Oli of the UML continues to hold.
Even as the new ministers were sworn in, trouble was brewing in another coalition partner, the JSP with Upendra Yadav and Baburam Bhattarai blaming each other for poor showing in the May election. JSP and the breakaway LSP lost their Madhes Province strongholds, and Yadav has reached out to LSP chair Mahanta Thakur in hopes of a reunification.
Now, Yadav has recalled JSP ministers without Bhattarai’s input for a cabinet reshuffle. This could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and splits the party twice in less than a year.
Meanwhile, Bhattarai is working on a Plan B: meeting his erstwhile Maoist nemesis Pushpa Kamal Dahal to smoke the peace pipe. There is also talk of Oli and Dahal getting back together.
Read more: Nepal’s local polls a rehearsal for federal elections, Shristi Karki
With all this pre-election jostling, many in Deuba’s own Nepali Congress think they do not really need an electoral alliance heading to the November polls. But the wily Deuba probably wants to prevent having to once more face a formidable Communist alliance of Maoists, Socialists and the UML in November.
In February, Deuba also got the American-aided MCC project Parliament ratification despite considerable opposition from the Communist alliance partners, complicated geopolitics and polarising public opinion.
But the government has found itself in the middle of another geopolitical quagmire with the US-proposed State Partnership Program (SPP). This has become such a hot potato that Deuba had to cancel a visit to the US in July.
The opposing UML, coalition partners, as well as members of Deuba’s own party want the prime minister to clarify his position on the SPP.
American military training and exercises in Nepal is not new, but the SPP could be a minefield for Deuba ahead of elections, and at a time when Sino-US relations are at rock bottom.
Read also: What goes on in Nepal's elections, Shekhar Parajuli