The UML and Maoists have nationwide roots, and with the two now in an alliance, their combined organisational heft will be hard to match.
Kathmandu: The communist movement in Nepal began with the formation of the Communist Party of Nepal in Kolkata, India, in 1949. The party, just like the Nepali Congress – the country’s oldest running democratic party – was forced to operate from India as political parties had been banned by the Rana rulers in Nepal. Since then, the communist movement in Nepal has undergone countless consolidations and splits. In more contemporary times, the first people’s revolution in 1990 gave birth to the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), or UML, which came into being with the merger of the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist). The UML party has since morphed into a political juggernaut. It is the second largest party in parliament at present and emerged the largest party under its charismatic, if at times controversial, leader K.P. Sharma Oli in the recent local elections.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center), led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, traces its origin back to 1994. The Maoist party wanted to establish a ‘people’s government’ through an armed insurgency (1996-2006). Under Prachanda, the Maoists fought state forces to a stalemate and in 2006 entered mainstream politics through the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
Even at the time of the Maoist party’s entry into the political mainstream, there had been efforts to form a common communist force through a formal merger with the UML. At the time, however, the differences between the UML (which had become well-versed in parliamentary politics) and the Maoists (whose rank and file were still filled with revolutionary fervour) were too big to be accommodated under the same political tent. But informal efforts to unify all leftist forces continued to be made.
It has taken 11 years for these efforts to fructify. In what came as a complete shock to Nepalis, who were busy celebrating Dashain, their biggest festival, the two parties, along with former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti Party, announced a new Left alliance for the upcoming two-phase provincial and federal elections. Not just that, the three parties said that they would formally merge following these elections.
Two posts, two folks
While it is true that efforts to unify all leftist forces in Nepal have been taking place for a while now, few in Nepal believed that it would materialise anytime soon. Even in the recent campaigns for local elections, there were open clashes between the cadres of the UML and Maoist parties, as the two battled it out for limited ‘Left votes’. Even before that there was always this underlying tension between the two parties, as each sought to portray itself as the real communist party. Whenever one did well in an election, the other invariably suffered.
But the same factor that made UML and Maoists bitter rivals also eventually brought them closer. If we look at the results of the recent local elections, had the two parties fielded common candidates, they could have won in up to 83% of all contested seats. This realisation hit home particularly after Nepali Congress routed both the communist parties in the third phase of local elections in Province No. 2.
Reasons for the alliance
Hence, in the reckoning of the top UML and Maoist leaders, it made perfect sense to forge a Left electoral alliance ahead of the provincial and federal elections to consolidate the Left-leaning voters. But there were several other reasons why the leftist forces decided to come together right now.
Perhaps the biggest of them had to do with personal calculations of UML chief Oli and Maoist chief Prachanda. Oli realised that given the proportional electoral system Nepal has recently adopted, there was no possibility of any one party getting an absolute majority in the upcoming elections. That being the case, there was a real chance of the continuation of the current Nepali Congress-Maoist coalition far into the future, not least because India seemed to have given this coalition its blessing. In that case, Oli’s ambition of becoming the prime minister again would have been thwarted.
Likewise, Prachanda was lured by the prospect of getting to be the undisputed leader of all the leftist forces in Nepal. If the new Left coalition garners an absolute majority, as is now likely, then Oli could become the prime minister while Prachanda could take over party leadership.
The crucial element
In case of Baburam Bhattarai, his Naya Shakti Party was going absolutely nowhere. While Bhattarai was the second in command in the Maoist party after Prachanda, since leaving the party in 2015, his political stature had been steadily declining. The recent deal with Oli and Prachanda once again puts him at the centre of Nepali politics, as he is sure to get a respectable position in the new party. Oli and Prachanda also seem to have calculated that having Bhattarai – who is reputed in Nepal as someone trusted by New Delhi – on board would help alleviate India’s concerns over the new communist coalition.
The last point is important because there are already rumors in Kathmandu, often backed by credible voices, that China put together the current communist coalition as a counter against the Congress-Maoist coalition that was backed by India. The Communist Party of China has long advised its communist cousins in Nepal to form a united front. But it would be a stretch to infer from this that the current left coalition was formed at China’s behest. There is no reason for China to pick favourites among the political parties in Nepal these days. It now has solid support among all three big parties in Nepal: Congress, UML as well as the Maoists.
But given New Delhi’s recent paranoia over Nepal being ‘taken over’ by the Chinese, Oli and Prachanda, both of whom have been suspected of harboring pro-China proclivities, clearly felt that Bhattarai could help allay any concerns of the ‘communist takeover’ of Nepal by China’s ‘lackeys’.
But what happens to Nepali Congress now, which is currently the biggest parliamentary party in Nepal? Following news of the Left merger, Congress president and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has been busy in hectic parleys to cobble together his own ‘democratic alliance’. Among the likely candidates to join this alliance are the pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party, Upendra Yadav’s Federal Socialist Forum and the alliance of six small Madhes-based parties, the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal.
Deuba in the doldrums
Even if these disparate forces can somehow work out a viable electoral strategy, it is likely to be a poor match against the communist alliance. This is because only Congress, UML and Maoists have deep, nationwide roots and with the latter two now in an alliance – and an eventual merger – their combined organisational heft will be hard to match. History is also against Congress. In recent elections in Nepal around 50-60% seats at all levels have gone to communist parties, while the Congress has been able to get just 30-40% of the seats.
Had Deuba been able to take his party into provincial and federal elections with the Congress-Maoist coalition intact, there was a major likelihood that the two parties would together get absolute majority and again form the government. This, in turn, would have greatly strengthened Deuba’s position in his own party. But with the main opposition party’s hand strengthened, partly as a result of Deuba’s failure to convince Prachanda on continued utility of their ruling alliance, Deuba will struggle to exert himself in Congress. Some party stalwarts are already calling for a new generation of leaders to take over.
In the final analysis, this latest turn of events in Kathmandu has given rise to countless questions on the future course of Nepali politics, but there are few answers. For instance, what now happens to the agenda of constitution amendment that Congress and Maoists had together been championing and which the UML had bitterly opposed? With the new communist coalition making executive head of government their common agenda, is the old parliamentary Westminster system now doomed in Nepal? What happens to transitional justice, with the UML now having seemingly dropped its agenda of prosecution of grave rights violations from the decade-long Maoist war? As importantly, will the Deuba government even survive till provincial and federal elections?
Many fears, some hope
There is a lot of uncertainty, but Nepalis are also hopeful that the new wave of consolidation could also herald a new era of political stability. With the polity badly fractured after the 2006 changes, governments in Kathmandu have changed every nine months or so. But now there is a real possibility of a single party garnering an absolute majority and getting to rule for full five years.
Even amid these hopes and fears and general atmosphere of uncertainty, one thing is for sure: after the latest turn of events, Nepali politics will not be the same again.
Biswas Baral is a Kathmandu-based journalist. He tweets @biswasktm.