How Nepal Prime Minister Oli’s Hunger For Power Is Pushing Ruling Communist Party Towards A Split

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Jul 31, 2020 11:31 AM +05:30 IST
How Nepal Prime Minister Oli’s Hunger For Power Is Pushing Ruling Communist Party Towards A SplitK P Sharma Oli, Prime Minister of Nepal.
  • Nepal Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli’s defiance and authoritarian ways could lead to a split in the ruling party.

Nepal Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli has dug in his heels and refused to mend his authoritarian ways or give up any of the two posts — that of the Prime Minister or party co-chair — as is being demanded by an overwhelming majority of the members of the apex standing committee of the party.

Oli has, instead of working towards a compromise, told Pushpa Kamal Dahal, his arch rival and co-chair in the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) that he will not “bow down” to any of the demands of his rivals in the party and they could do whatever they want.

This has pushed the NCP in a fresh and grave crisis with a majority of the standing committee members demanding a meeting of the party’s central committee. According to the NCP’s constitution, the central committee is empowered to take a final decision on all party matters.

According to senior leaders of the NCP, negotiations between Oli and Dahal seem to have broken down, perhaps irretrievably. The two top leaders of the party have sat for at least 10 rounds of talks over the past one month to thrash out issues.

Initially, Oli held out indications of a softening of stance and it appeared he would agree to step down as party co-chair if Dahal guarantees that he (Oli) will be allowed to complete his full five-year term as Prime Minister.

Soon after winning a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections in early 2018, the two had reached an agreement to share the Prime Minister’s post for two-and-half years each. But towards the end of last year, Oli denied having agreed to such an arrangement, plunging the party into a crisis.

Nepal’s President Bidhya Devi Bhandari then brokered a deal between the two in November last year. As per that deal, Oli would complete his full term as Prime Minister while Dahal would become the executive chairman of the party.

But, true to his nature, Oli went back on the deal even before the ink had dried on it. Dahal, who has been double-crossed by Oli many times in the past, was biding his time since then.

Dahal got an opportunity to strike back when resentment against Oli both within and outside the party over his authoritarian ways, misgovernance and inept handling of the coronavirus-triggered pandemic started peaking last month.

Other top NCP leaders like Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal (both former prime ministers) as well as Bamdev Gautam (a former deputy prime ministers) were also angry with Oli for being sidelined. The three gravitated towards Dahal and teamed up against their common enemy: Oli.

Oli found himself pushed into a corner since the quartet had a majority in all bodies of the NCP — the nine-member state secretariat, the 45-member standing committee and the 441-member central committee.

The NCP was thrown into a grave crisis as soon as a meeting of the standing committee was convened late June with members demanding that Oli give up the post of Prime Minister or party co-chair.

Oli’s point-blank refusal, and growing public discontent with his incompetent handling of the pandemic, bunglings in procurement of medical supplies and alleged corrupt deals by his aides and senior ministers, led standing committee members to sharpen their stance and demand Oli step down from both the posts.

Since then, Oli and Dahal have been involved in protracted negotiations with the Chinese envoy to Nepal Hou Yanqi making desperate attempts to bring the warring factions together to avoid an imminent split in the NCP (also read this).

China had catalysed the merger of Nepal’s two communist parties — the United Marxist Leninist Party headed by Oli and the Maoist party headed by Dahal — and the formation of the NCP in May 2018. But the unification process remains incomplete.

There were indications two weeks ago that the crisis within the NCP would be averted with President Bhandari once again brokering an agreement between Oli and Dahal.

As per that agreement, a general convention of the party would be convened by the end of this year and all issues would be taken up and decided there.

Oli promised to abide by the general convention’s decisions and to back Dahal for the post of party chairman. In return, he wanted Dahal to commit himself to the principle of ‘multi-party democracy’ as the NCP’s ideology.

But Madhav Nepal and Khanal (Dahal’s allies in his fight against Oli) objected to what they called a ‘backroom deal’ between Oli and Dahal.

Dahal was then forced to contradict reports of such a deal, thus plunging the ruling party into a fresh crisis.

Dahal also realised that he was being tricked into a deal by Oli once again. There could be no guarantee that Oli would abide by the decision of a general convention. And given the pandemic, it would be well-nigh impossible to convene the convention by this year end.

Dahal realised that Oli was simply biding time and would utilise the interregnum to consolidate his position within the party by winning over leaders with loaves of office and other favours. Oli has done this in the past to tackle opposition to his position.

Dahal also understood that agreeing to ‘multi-party democracy’ would mean junking his own political ideology for which he had waged a decade-long insurgency (1996-2006) that killed 17,000 people and displaced tens of thousands.

Dahal, thus, turned his back on what was being billed as a ‘tentative deal’ to end the crisis in the NCP.

Matters came to a head earlier this week when Oli cancelled a meeting of the standing committee convened at his official residence at Baluwatar in Kathmandu. Most members of the standing committee (Oli has the support of only 14 members of the 45-member committee) were livid with Oli for the last-minute cancellation.

A high drama followed with 23 standing committee members, including Dahal and Nepal, reaching Baluwatar and going ahead with the meeting in the Prime Minister’s residence despite Oli’s refusal to participate in it.

Before that meeting, Dahal and Khanal went to meet Oli to request him to attend the meeting, but Oli reportedly refused.

A standing committee member who was present in Baluwatar that day told Swarajya over phone from Kathmandu that Oli was brusque with Dahal and Khanal and told them that he would not bow down to pressure. He dismissed them with a “do whatever you can” challenge.

The crisis in the NCP deepened after that with the anti-Oli faction upping the ante. On Thursday (30 July), 152 members of the party’s central committee demanded a meeting of the committee “as soon as possible” to discuss the crisis.

Senior NCP leader and central committee member Lekhnath Neupane said that since the standing committee had failed to resolve the crisis, the apex standing committee should now step in.

Oli has the support of only about 130 members of the standing committee and is highly unlikely to agree to a meeting of that committee.

A cornered Oli, say political observers in Kathmandu, is likely to propose that all issues be discussed in the nine-member party secretariat. Oli did not have the numbers in the state secretariat either, but may have won over some of the members there.

Oli is desperately trying to win over some of his key detractors. He drove to the residence of the ambitious Bamdev Gautam earlier this week to entice him.

Oli reportedly offered Gautam a membership of the National Assembly (the upper house) as he had done in the past to stave off crises then (read this and this).

It remains to be seen if Oli can, once again, outfox his rivals and retain the two posts that he is clinging on to despite fierce opposition. But senior leaders within the NCP say that a compromise is highly unlikely now.

The saving grace for the NCP is that none of the leaders want to take the blame for a split in the party.

If the party splits, Oli can easily blame it on the quartet’s (Dahal, Nepal, Khanal and Gautam) quest for power.

The quartet want to avoid this blame, since it would turn party cadres against them.

They want Oli to blink, but backed firmly by Beijing, the Prime Minister is opting to simply bide his time.

However, given their anger against him, his detractors may ultimately decide that they’ve had enough and part ways with him.

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