Making mockery of the people’s mandate
Political opportunism in the formation of Nepal’s new government has undermined the credibility of the country’s democratic processes. Sudha Ramachandran reports
After weeks of uncertainty over government formation, Nepal finally has a new government. On December 26, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC), was sworn in as prime minister.
Dahal had submitted a letter to President Bidya Devi Bhandari a day earlier, which showed that he had the support of 169 parliamentarians in the 275-member House of Representatives.
A former guerrilla who went by the nom de guerre ‘Prachanda’ – the ‘Fierce One’ – Dahal led country’s the decade-long Maoist insurgency, joining mainstream politics in 2006. This is his third stint as Nepal’s prime minister and he heads a seven-party coalition government.
The formation of the new government under Dahal has underscored yet again the absence of principles or programmatic commitment in Nepal’s politics. Given that political opportunism was the sole reason for his switching sides to form the new government, this will undermine the credibility of Nepal’s democratic processes, parties and politicians in the eyes of the people.
Nepal voted in November 20 elections to parliament, which threw up a deeply fractured mandate. No party won enough seats to form the government on its own. While the ruling Nepali Congress won 89 seats, the opposition Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) emerged as runner-up with 77 seats, followed by the CPN-MC (32), the Rashtriya Swatantra Party (RSP) (20), the Rashtriya Prajatantrik Party (RPP) (14), CPN-Unified Socialist (10), Loktantrik Samajwadi Party (4), Nagarik Unmukti Party (NUP) (3), and the Rashtriya Janamorcha and Nepal Workers and Peasants Party with one seat each. There are five independent members in the new parliament.
Dahal is the leader of the CPN-MC, which was a constituent partner of the NC-led outgoing government and the NC-led alliance in the recent general election. He has jumped ship to become prime minister.
The NC was best positioned to form the new government. It won the most seats in the election and, with the support of its coalition partners, commanded the most support in parliament. However, this coalition was two seats short of a simple majority in parliament. Consequently, in recent weeks, the party was engaged in hectic negotiations to win the support of other parties. Meanwhile, negotiations were also taking place among the NC-led coalition partners over the question of leadership of the new governments and ministerial posts.
NC chief Sher Bahadur Deuba, who was prime minister in the outgoing government, was hoping to secure his sixth stint in the top job. But standing in his way were Dahal’s prime ministerial ambitions, with the CPN-MC chief reportedly lobbying hard to secure the post of premier.
Apparently, the NC and the CPN-MC agreed on their parties leading the government on a rotational basis. The problem arose over who would lead first. The NC was of the view that it deserved the first chance as it won the most seats. Dahal disagreed. Evidently, he saw himself not just as the kingmaker but as the king.
So how did Dahal pip Deuba at the post?
It appears that Dahal was in talks with the NC and the CPN-UML simultaneously. When the Nepali Congress refused to concede to his demands on December 25 – the deadline set by the President for government formation – an angry Dahal stormed out of talks with the NC to meet CPN-UML chief Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli.
Oli and Dahal reached an agreement on formation of a rotational government for two-and-a-half years each. Importantly, Oli agreed to Dahal holding the prime minister’s post for the first half of the administration’s term, In return, his candidates would be appointed to the posts of President and Speaker of the House as well as to key ministerial portfolios and the majority of provincial chief ministerial posts.
This is not the first time that the CPN-UML and the CPN-MC have joined hands. They fought the 2017 general elections together and subsequently merged to form the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) government. Back then too, Oli and Dahal agreed on a power-sharing arrangement, with each to hold the prime minister’s post on a rotational basis for two-and-a-half years.
However, their deal quickly came apart. With Prime Minister Oli refusing to share power with Dahal, the two were soon locked in a bitter power tussle that split the CPN and led to the collapse of the government.
Dahal subsequently backed an NC-led government and fought the recent general election as part of the NC-led coalition. But when the NC refused to hand him the prime minister’s post, he crossed over to embrace Oli, his friend-turned-foe-turned-friend again.
In the run-up to the elections, Nepali political commentators pointed to the opportunism that determined electoral alliances. Dahal’s changing sides to secure the prime minister’s post has underscored this opportunism at play in government formation too.
Nepal has long struggled to build a stable democratic polity. Both the erstwhile monarchy and political parties and politicians have severely damaged democratic processes and institutions.
In 1960, for instance, King Mahendra dismissed Nepal’s elected government, banned political parties and instituted a system of absolute monarchy, which remained in place till 1990, when a people’s movement led to Nepal becoming a constitutional monarchy and a multiparty democracy. But another royal coup in February 2005 saw King Gyanendra dismiss another elected government to revive the absolute monarchy.
While Nepal is no longer a monarchy, its politicians continue to undermine democracy in multiple ways. Santosh Sharma Poudel, a faculty member at the Dept of International Relations and Diplomacy at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University, told Asian Affairs that, although ‘political structures have changed, the action and attitudes of political actors remain the same’.
Coalitions in Nepal are rarely formed on the basis of shared programmatic or ideological commitment. Rather, hunger for power has been the main driving force of alliances and coalitions. Politicians and parties topple governments with alarming frequency. Consider this: Nepal has seen 28 governments come and go over the last three decades. Since their hold over power is tenuous, governments are preoccupied with political survival rather than good governance. Not surprisingly, then, disillusionment with democracy is growing.
Voter frustration with the established political parties was running high in the run-up to the recent elections. Yet they managed to corner the most seats thanks to large numbers of their cadres showing up to vote for them.
However, voters still strongly expressed their discontent. Six sitting ministers in the Deuba government, including Home Minister Balkrishna Khand, were defeated, as were around 60 sitting parliamentarians.
Parties were punished too. The power struggle between Oli and Dahal that paralysed governance between 2020 and 2021 impacted the performance of their parties in the recent election: the presence of the CPN-UML and the CPN-MC in parliament shrank by 43 seats and 26 seats, respectively.
Despite the decline in their performance at the elections, the two parties are now in power. That the leader of a party which won a mere 11 per cent of the votes, with just 32 seats in the 275-member House, has managed to become prime minister makes a mockery of the people’s mandate. The unholy alliance between Dahal and Oli and the rank opportunism on which it is based is just the kind of politics that is fuelling public disillusionment with democratic politics in Nepal.
The Dahal-led government is unlikely to bring Nepal stability. The new prime minister will have to prove his government’s strength in a trust vote which he faces in a month. If he fails the vote, parties will have to go back to cobbling together a new government.
If Dahal survives the upcoming vote, he will remain at the helm for at least two years, as Nepal’s constitution decrees that a no-trust vote cannot be brought against a prime minister for at least two years.
Yet Dahal’s stint as prime minister will not be easy, as he is dependent on Oli’s goodwill. His coalition partners share neither policy commitment nor ideology. With Dahal preoccupied with political survival, governance is likely to suffer again.