PM Oli’s decision to seek a vote of confidence in the parliament, at a rather unfitting time, has shaken Nepali politics. Following the decision, CPN–Maoist Centre withdrew its support to the government and intensified its effort to topple Oli. Nepali Congress, too, finally agreed to lead the no-confidence motion—with support from majority Janata Samajwadi Party Nepal (JSPN) lawmakers and possibly CPN–UML’s Khanal–Nepal faction. Interestingly, Oli knows and is unbothered by the strong likelihood of his defeat because he wants to take the country towards an early election. If he can only prevent the formation of an alternative coalition, the country will eventually move towards a parliamentary dissolution and election within December. Let us look at the numbers first, though.
The House of Representatives currently has 271 members: CPN–UML’s 121, NC’s 63 (two suspended), MC’s 49, JSPN’s 34 (two suspended), and 4 independent. For confidence in his favor, PM Oli requires 136 lawmakers on his side. This is if the Khanal–Nepal faction of the UML does not resign en masse before the vote on May 10. In that case, UML’s 121 and the JSPN’s 16 (from the Thakur–Mahato faction) would be enough to save Oli’s government. For this, though, he would have to keep both UML’s Khanal–Nepal faction and JSPN’s Thakur–Mahato faction happy. Oli does not seem keen to please either group. While he does not want to scrape up all his unilateral decisions and take the party back to its pre-merger (with the MC) state—a political loss—for the former, Oli is also not enthusiastic about addressing the Madhesi party’s demands—a personal defeat.
Oli’s reluctance to bow down to both the groups indicates his defeat at the vote of confidence in the parliament. While he does welcome that possibility for an easy road to early election, he also has to ensure the opposition parties do not form an alternative government after his loss. If the Khanal–Nepal faction (21) resigns en masse before the vote, Oli’s loss in a 250-member HoR will face an opposition requiring only 126 lawmakers to form the government. A coalition of Nepali Congress (63), Maoist Centre (49), and JSPN’s Bhattarai–Yadav faction (18) will lead to an alternative government. To avoid this possible coalition, therefore, Oli will have to lure at least one of the three parties out of it. The easiest is to pluck out Nepali Congress because Deuba, too, is interested in early elections, through which he hopes to improve his tarnished image in the party by performing well. He understands that it is more likely to achieve that goal while the communists are divided.
It may be of interest to know why Oli is not keen about continuing his leadership anymore and wants election instead. After all, he had an almost three-fourth majority, which he first blew up by acting unilaterally. His party had China’s formidable backing. Despite all that, he continued to bulldoze his way forward, antagonizing everyone in the process. Things have starkly changed now; neither Dahal’s Maoist Centre nor his party’s own Khanal–Nepal faction is with him. Even the opposition Nepali Congress is not certain to back him anymore. Oli has also lost China’s support. Following a series of corruption scandals, including the most recent in Covid-19 vaccine procurement, Oli’s approval rating among the people has dropped low. Against all the odds, then, why is Oli so eager to conduct early elections, ignoring efforts from his party’s second-rank leaders to save the party unity? Some anticipate Oli’s intention of conducting a Bangladesh-like election, where he will use all state mechanisms to ‘democratically’ consolidate his power. After all, he has the president’s backing, as has been demonstrated by her dutiful endorsement of Oli’s decisions and an active involvement in political processes.
Beside his obvious hunger for more power, Oli’s preference of election has multiple other plausible explanations. First, Oli does not want to bow down to his party’s internal resistance from the Khanal–Nepal faction. As discussed above, the faction’s support to Oli is a must if he wants to win a confidence in the parliament. So, by favoring election, Oli avoids his political loss within the party because he does not lose the grip in the party if he holds the election despite the rival faction’s resignation.
Second, Oli would rather hold Deuba’s hand instead of the Madhesi leaders’. He has proved himself to be anti-Madhes at several occasions, be it during the constitutional promulgation or his election campaigns. So, addressing Madhesi leaders’ demands about the very issues he once stood firmly against, and benefitted from, would yet again be a political and symbolic defeat for Oli. By choosing to align with Nepali Congress and Deuba for an early election, therefore, he avoids the necessity to appease the Madhesi leaders. Besides, his personal and political history suggests that Oli is more comfortable and confident dealing with Deuba.
However, even courting Deuba is not that easy for Oli anymore. Reportedly, after seeing his role in Lumbini and Gandaki provinces’ recent politics, Deuba is now skeptical about a fair election under Oli’s leadership. This doubt is what led Deuba to form an alliance with the Maoist Centre and JSPN’s Bhattarai–Yadav faction, for a vote of no-confidence against Oli, in the first place. Therefore to dissuade Deuba from forming an alternative coalition government under his leadership, Oli will have to provide him the assurance of a compromise-free election.
Third is perhaps Oli’s self-realization that his government has failed to properly address the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. He must understand the impact his failed leadership during this crisis will cause to his party’s image. Therefore, he wants to push the country towards a fresh election and avoid more shame and blame due to his continued mis-governance and under-performance during the pandemic and its quick aftermath.
Oli believes that his current position demands neither a serious effort to make peace with the Khanal–Nepal group nor a compliance to any agreement with the JSPN faction. If Oli wants an early election, the current situation is a win-win for him. Without both Thakur–Mahato and Khanal–Nepal groups’ support, he will lose the vote, and working in Deuba’s confidence will take the country towards an early election. However, if the two groups miraculously vote in Oli’s favor, his government will be saved—a win again. That will be an endorsement to his dictatorial attitude, where no criticism of his governance will shake him. The Khanal–Nepal faction understands this and, therefore, does not want to vote in Oli’s favor, unless he demonstrates a changed attitude, at least, within the party.