Nepal: Scramble For Prime Minister’s Post Provides China A Window To Interfere In Government-Formation

Nepal: Scramble For Prime Minister’s Post Provides China A Window To Interfere In Government-Formation

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Wednesday, December 21, 2022 05:34 PM IST
Nepal: Scramble For Prime Minister’s Post Provides China A Window To Interfere In Government-FormationFormer Prime Minister of Nepal, K P Sharma Oli, and current Prime Minister of Nepal, Sher Bahadur Deuba (Right)
Snapshot
  • Intense jockeying among the partners of the ruling alliance has given Beijing an opportunity to fish in troubled waters.

    Only deft handling of Dahal by Deuba can thwart Beijing’s plans.

Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari, has set a Sunday (25 December) evening deadline for political parties to form a new government in the country. 

But with no party securing a majority in the 20 November polls, this has triggered an intense jockeying for the Prime Minister’s post among the leaders of the three leading parties in the Himalayan nation. 

And that has provided Beijing an opportunity to interfere in the government-formation with the objective of installing its surrogate — the chairperson of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli — in the Prime Minister’s post.

Or, at the very least, as the power behind the throne. 

Sher Bahadur Deuba, who was re-elected leader of the Nepali Congress (NC) Parliamentary Party Wednesday (21 December) morning, should have been the natural and only claimant for the PM’s post. 

The NC has emerged as the single-largest party in the 275-member Pratinidhi Sabha (the lower House of Parliament) with 89 MPs. The five-party coalition it heads commands the support of 136 MPs, just two short of the majority mark of 138. 

A few smaller parties like the Nagarik Unmukti Party (with its three MPs) and the Janamat with six MPs have pledged their support to the alliance. 

But Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the chairperson of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) [the CPN(MC)] has thrown a spanner in Deuba’s works by staking claim for the top post. His party is a constituent of the NC-led alliance that formed the government after Oli was forced to step down in July last year. 

Dahal claims there exists a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between him and Deuba that they would share the PM’s post by turns of the alliance comes to power. This agreement, asserts Dahal, was in place before the elections. 

Dahal, who led a decade-long Maoist insurgency from 1996 to 2006 that wracked the country and claimed over 17,000 lives, wants to become the PM for the first 2.5 years of the five-year term. 

The Maoist leader, who had two short stints in the Prime Minister’s chair — August 2008 to May 2009 and August 2016 to June 2017 — is desperate to occupy that chair once again.

But Deuba and other NC leaders feel that Dahal’s demand is unjustified because his party has come a distant third in the parliamentary polls, winning just 32 seats. 

Dahal, incidentally, is being egged on by some detractors of Deuba within the NC who do not want to see Deuba as the Prime Minister.

A section of NC leaders have no love lost for Deuba and were instrumental in shoring up support for party general secretary Gagan Thapa, who made a futile bid for the post of leader of the NC parliamentary party. 

Under the NC’s constitution, the leader of the parliamentary party is the party’s PM-designate. Thapa eventually lost to Deuba in the elections held Wednesday (21 December) morning. While Deuba secured the votes of 64 MPs, Thapa could garner the support of only 25 MPs. 

Dahal’s close confidante and CPN(MC) general secretary Dev Gurung told Swarajya over phone from Kathmandu that Dahal’s claim for the first go at the PM’s post is “very justified”.

“We (Maoists) helped NC form the government and Deuba to become Prime Minister in the middle of last year and Deuba had enjoyed power for nearly one and half years till the elections (on 20 November). It is only fair for Deuba to agree to make Dahal the PM now as per the gentleman’s agreement between the two leaders reached before the elections,” said Gurung. 

But NC leaders do not agree. An NC leader told Swarajya that they do not really trust Dahal to relinquish the post after 2.5 years. And Deuba, who is 76, does not want to wait for another two and half years to become the Prime Minister. 

Deuba had occupied the PM’s post five times in the past: September 1995 to March 1997, July 2001 to October 2002, June 2004 to February 2005, June 2017 to February 2018 and July 2021 to November 2022.

But if he becomes the PM now, it will be the first time that he will be leading a post-election government as leader of the largest party in Parliament. 

According to NC leaders, Deuba is willing to offer the Maoists the post of Speaker and some other plum portfolios. But he wants to keep the PM’s post for himself in the first half of the five-year term and then make way for Dahal. 

To complicate matters further, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Socialist) [CPN(US)] which is a junior partner in the NC-led coalition also wants its chairperson Madhav Kumar Nepal as the Prime Minister for at least a year of the five year term. 

CPN(US) deputy general secretary Vijay Poudel told Swarajya that Deuba, Dahal and Nepal had agreed ahead of the elections to lead the government by turns: "two year terms each for Deuba and Dahal and a one-year term for Nepal”. 

Though CPN(US) has not put forward its claim strongly after the polls, it is expected to do so now. CPN(US) spokesperson Jagannath Khatiwada said that though the party had no plans to break the alliance, “everything depends on how the Nepali Congress treats us”. 

The CPN(US) fared very poorly in the elections by winning in only ten seats under the first past the post (FPTP) system.

It did not qualify for national party status as it did not bag the 3 per cent votes required to attain that status. Hence, it did not qualify for any Pratinidhi Sabha seats under the proportional representation (PR) system. 

This has put the party in a highly disadvantageous position. But a senior leader of the party said that the CPN(US) is waiting for an opportune moment to pitch its claim for the PM’s post. 

The scramble for the PM’s post among the partners of the ruling alliance has given Beijing an opportunity to fish in troubled waters in a bid to get its proxy (Oli) to a position of power. 

Playing to Beijing’s script, Oli had reached out to Dahal and offered a power-sharing arrangement to the Maoist leader. Oli had deputed his close confidants Raghubir Mahaseth and Mahesh Basnet to negotiate a deal with Dahal. 

The CPN(UML) had emerged as the second-largest party with 77 seats. Its ally, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) has won 14 seats. Since the CPN(UML)-RPP combine with its tally of 91 seats falls far short of the 138 seats required to form the government, the CPN(UML) has been trying to get the Maoists and other parties on board to form the government. 

As per Oli’s calculation, if he can get the support of the CPN(MC) and other parties, he can make a bid for power.

The CPN(MC) has 32 MPs. Oli’s aides have been in talks with the Janata Samajbadi Party (12 MPs), the CPN(US) which has ten MPs, and four independent parliamentarians. 

Dev Gurung, who was the interlocutor for Dahal, said that Oli had offered to share the PM’s post with Dahal and had offered Dahal the first half of the five-year term. Oli has also offered the Speaker’s post and at least five plum ministerial portfolios to the Maoists. 

But Dahal, who has a bitter past with Oli and does not trust Oli, has not committed himself. More so since Oli had simultaneously offered support to the NC to form the government and suggested a similar power-sharing deal to Deuba. 

Oli, however, is banking on Dahal’s lust for power, specifically the PM’s post, to break the NC-led coalition. Even if he manages to wean away the CPN(MC) from the coalition and make Dahal the Prime Minister for the first 2.5 years, Oli knows very well that it will be he (Oli) who will wield actual power. 

That’s because the CPN(MC) with its 32 MPs will not have much leeway and Dahal will have to do his (Oli’s) bidding. 

Such an arrangement — Oli being the power behind the throne — suits Beijing just fine. It will then be able to push forward its agenda in Nepal and make the Himalayan country yet another of its vassal states. 

Only deft handling of Dahal by Deuba can thwart Beijing’s sinister plans and keep the country from becoming a satellite state of China.

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