Untangling Nepal’s politics

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On 23 February 2021, the Supreme Court made a historic judgement to restore the Lower House of the Federal parliament, which was unconstitutionally dissolved by Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli on December 20, 2020. To the relief of many, the SC decision reestablished constitutional supremacy, but the subsequent political developments have led the country towards an unprecedented political confusion. As of now, the Dahal-Nepal faction of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) have been exercising to oust Oli, who shows no sign of resigning despite his moral defeat at the Supreme Court. PM Oli has made it clear that he would rather face the votes of no-confidence against him within the parliamentary party and parliament. On the other hand, the opposition Nepali Congress (NC) and Janata Samajwadi Party­-Nepal (JSPN) have been patiently waiting and watching NCP’s politics, without being swayed by offers of collaboration from both Oli and Dahal-Nepal factions.

Major Actors, their Interests, and Strategies

PM OLI: Contrary to a widespread speculation that PM Oli would resign if the Supreme Court reversed his House dissolution move, Oli publicly admitted that his resignation is not on the table. He also made it clear that he will rather face no-confidence motion and stay in the opposition for the remaining 1.5 years if he loses. So it is quite apparent that PM Oli wants to prolong his stay in power, meanwhile also devising strategies to dodge the attacks coming at him. As a part of the same, his faction has already began a horse trading race to solidify his position. Reportedly, he has been trying to lure MPs from the Dahal-Nepal faction by offering them money and/or ministerial posts.

The Dahal-Nepal Faction: The Dahal-Nepal faction wants to remove Oli through a vote of no-confidence. Although it wanted to move ahead with the no-confidence motion filed on December 20, due to some legal and political issues, the faction has decided to file a new motion with the support from NC and JSPN. First, the old motion was registered at 3:30 PM on December 20, about two hours after the house was dissolved. Therefore, the Supreme Court’s decision to restore the parliament could mean the first no-confidence motion might not have legal grounds to stand. Similarly, the old motion has Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s name as the proposed prime minister—something that could deter NC’s and/or JSPN’s backing. The faction has been approaching both the opposition parties for support and collaboration to remove Oli. It has also not fallen behind in the horse trading race.

The Nepali Congress: Nepali Congress currently enjoys a special position in the parliament, without which forming a new government (if the NCP splits legally) is numerically impossible. Although the party is still weighing its options and is open to both factions of the NCP, an understanding that only Oli can split the communist party makes NC president Deuba favor a possible coalition with his faction. Deuba’s party opponents, however, perceive a collaboration with Oli as a long-term blow to the party. Nevertheless, the party is waiting for NCP’s official split and, therefore, has not taken up on any offers from its two factions.

Janata Samajwadi Party Nepal (JSPN): Although the party does not have the numerical strength to help form the next government, its support can prove crucial—particularly for the Dahal-Nepal faction. For the same reason, the Dahal-Nepal faction sought JSPN’s support to register a no-confidence motion and form a coalition government. The party sought clarification from the Dahal-Nepal faction about NCP’s status. According to JSPN leader Rajendra Mahato, the faction should provide clarity on the status of Nepal Communist Party and whether/how a coalition is possible. Like Nepali Congress, the JSPN is also divided along its factional line and lacks clarity on its stance; while Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and Upendra Yadav are firm on not supporting Oli, Mahantha Thakur and Rajendra Mahato seem more flexible and, therefore, unclear.

Election Commission and the NCP’s Future

On January 24, the Election Commission (EC) decided to not grant official recognition to either faction of the NCP—ruling that the NCP has not split legally. However, the legitimacy claims were filed again, and the EC is currently in the process to make a decision. The EC’s verdict on NCP’s legitimacy dispute will prove crucial in determining Nepal’s politics and government because it will open up legal avenues to split the party and eventually form a coalition government. Dahal claims that the EC’s decision will be in his faction’s favor.

Irrespective of the EC’s decision on NCP’s legitimacy battle, the party’s fate also lies in the hands of the Supreme Court. The court is set to hear a case filed by Rishiram Kattel, who has questioned the legitimacy of Nepal Communist Party (NCP) itself. Because Kattel has Nepal Communist Party registered under his name in the Election Commission, the Oli-Dahal merger was registered as Nepal Communist Party (NCP)—with NCP within brackets. If the SC decides in Kattel’s favor, the NCP could go back to its pre-merger state, where Oli and Dahal will be leading NCP–UML and CPN–MC, respectively. In that case, the politics will be straightforward, as it will a pave path for coalition government.

The Number Game

In the lower house of the Federal Parliament, PM Oli has around 83 lawmakers on his side, whereas the Dahal-Nepal faction has around 90. The opposition NC has 63 (two suspended) and JSPN 34 (two suspended) seats in the Lower House. Because the NCP is legally intact with a clear majority in the parliament (173) and Oli is its parliamentary leader, removing the prime minister without removing him from the parliamentary party leader is almost impossible. In fact, the Dahal-Nepal faction did pick Dahal as the new leader and removed Oli from the party. But after the EC declined to recognize the party’s split and/or offer Dahal’s group a legitimacy, Oli is still the leader, legally. Therefore, the Dahal-Nepal faction has to reinitiate the process of removing Oli, which is very less likely because the deputy leader, Subash Nembag, who has the authority to call a meeting for the same, belongs to Oli’s faction. Besides, keeping the party united is no more a priority for either faction.

The other option is to wait for the EC’s (and the SC’s) decision and hope for NCP’s legal split. Both factions of the NCP will then try to bring Nepali Congress into confidence to form a new government. The Dahal-Nepal faction may form government with NC’s support by offering Deuba the prime minister post. Although Oli could do the same, getting the entire Nepali Congress party to support him could prove challenging. What could also happen, though, is an agreement between Oli and Deuba for an early election; if Nepali Congress does not support either of the NCP factions, the failure to form a government will automatically dissolve the parliament.  

What Next?

According to the court’s order to begin parliamentary sessions within 13 days, President Bidya Devi Bhandari has summoned the House of Representatives on May 7, 2021. If the Dahal-Nepal faction ends up forging an alliance with Nepali Congress and/or Janata Samajwadi Party Nepal by then, it will register a new vote of no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Oli. If that happens, the EC’s or SC’s verdict on NCP’s dispute may end up being unimportant for government formation. Like senior advocate Chandra Kant Gyawali argues, if a proposed name on the no-confidence motion gets enough support, “he does not even need to be elected the Parliamentary Party leader to become the prime minister.” If the EC does make a decision and NCP splits before the parliamentary session resumes, Nepali Congress will be decisive in forming the next government— with Deuba being the most likely next prime minister.

The SC’s decision to reinstate the House brought the country’s derailed democracy and rule of law to a track. The move restored people’s faith in constitutional supremacy and democratic mechanisms to some extent. However, the political parties and leaders have failed to fulfil their responsibilities as democracy’s gatekeeper. Owing to a personality-driven political culture, where leaders form factions within parties to fulfil their personal interests, no party has been able to form a clear vision or stance on the country’s current political mess. They all seem to be waiting for the perfect time to benefit from the evolving political scenario. As a result, most political questions that could have been solved through negotiations and dialogues are going to the court—a practice that is not ideal for a representative democracy. Not only this even the role of the Election Commission, an autonomous constitutional body, has received criticism due to its delay and confusion in settling the NCP’s dispute. The EC’s indecision has invited frequent interventions and pressures from even the sparring parties—both Oli and Dahal-Nepal faction. What the EC decides and how the NCP factions react to the decision will shape Nepal’s politics and governance in the days to come. If the opposition parties’ prolong their indecision, they may end up losing a rare opportunity to reestablish their authority in the parliament.

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