South Asia

Nepal Left Parties Merger: How the Political Behemoth Came to Life

Maoists, liberal communists unite after a delay of months to form the Nepal Communist Party which controls 174 seats in the 275-member parliament and is considered to be closer to China than India.

Kathmandu: The May 17 merger between the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxists Leninists (CPN-UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center), the first and the third largest parties in the Nepali legislature, had been on the cards for the past six months.

On the eve of the provincial and federal elections last year, the two parties had announced an electoral alliance and an eventual merger. But even though the Left alliance together secured a nearly two-thirds majority in the elections on the common planks of ‘stability’ and ‘prosperity’, the merger kept being pushed back for a number of reasons.

The two parties had joined hands after the local elections, which strongly suggested that it would be wise to consolidate the Left vote bank, primarily to cut the Nepali Congress, which has ruled Nepal for most of the country’s democratic history, down to size. Their calculation proved correct and the Left electoral alliance secured a thumping mandate. It was only around then that Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ started getting insecure about his place in the to-be-formed Communist party.

During the candidate-selection process for the federal and provincial elections, the UML and the Maoists had settled on a 60:40 formula, whereby UML would get to nominate 60% members in all contested seats and the Maoist Centre would get to nominate its candidates in the rest. But the elections produced a rather curious result: of all the MPs in the federal and provincial chambers elected from the Left alliance, 70% were from the UML and only 30% from the Maoist party.

Nepal's Prime Minister KP Oli shakes hand with Chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Credit: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Oli shakes hands with chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’. Credit: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

Following this result, UML leaders – including the chairman and prime minister K.P. Oli – started saying that the unification of the two parties should take place on a ‘proportional’ basis, in keeping with the electoral mandate.

But Prachanda was having none of it. He argued that the proportional basis worked only during candidate selection, and not so during party unification as a unification happens only “between equals”. So if there was to be a formal unification, there had to be a near equal division of spoils in the selection of the new party’s key office bearers.

A ‘respectable’ unification

Prachanda was under considerable pressure from the Maoist top-brass to insist on a ‘respectable’ unification. This is because the Maoists had large decision-making bodies on their hands; for instance, its central committee comprised of 1,099 members. But the central committee of the unified communist outfit, as per an earlier agreement, would limit the number to 299. In other words, countless influential Maoist leaders would be ‘demoted’ in the new party. So Prachanda could not conceivably agree to Oli’s proposal of the 70:30 division based on the electoral mandate.

But more than his party’s rank and file, Prachanda was more concerned about his own place in the new scheme of things. Whatever the pressures on him from inside the party, the merger could have been effected long ago if Prachanda was assured one of two things: either he gets to become the prime minister after two-and-a-half years of Oli’s tenure, or he is assured of chairmanship of the new communist behemoth. But Oli was reluctant to makes promises on either front.

In any case, such an assurance, even if written down, would be meaningless because the new party chairman would be chosen from the floor of the general convention via a secret ballot. If there were enough UML leaders who didn’t want Prachanda as their leader, they could easily vote for someone else. Nor was Oli in a mood to relinquish the post of prime minister after his UML party emerged as by far the biggest political force in the country. 

But Oli was also in a dilemma. If the Left unity unraveled and the Maoists pulled out of his government, he would then be short of parliamentary majority. And Nepali Congress was already trying to lure away Prachanda with the promise of supporting his future prime ministerial bid. Oli also feared that without unification, foreign forces (read: India) could try to topple his government, just as they have previously helped bring down many democratic governments in Nepal. UML leaders are keenly aware that many in New Delhi continue to see their party as ‘pro-China’.

A new agreement

When it became clear that Prachanda would not agree to unification without a credible quid pro quo, Oli decided that he would give the Maoist chairman his pound of flesh, if only to secure his hold on government. Knowing that Prachanda would not be satisfied only with assurances, Oli decided to offer him the kind of equitable distribution of party portfolios that Prachanda had been angling for.

As per the new agreement, the central committee of the united party was expanded from 299 to 441, with 241 seats going to the UML and 200 to the Maoists. Among the 43 members of the powerful Standing Committee, there would be 25 members from UML and 18 from Maoist Center. Considering the vast differences in the strengths of the two parties – UML for instance has 121 seats in the federal legislature compared to 53 for the Maoist Center – this was more than Prachanda could have bargained for.

Nepal’s K.P. Oli with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2016. Credit: Reuters

With so many of his trusted comrades occupying powerful positions in the new party, Prachanda now has a decent chance of getting one of the two executive posts he has been pining for. But even if the worst comes to the worst, Prachanda will now have the option of breaking the party and going his own way. According to new electoral laws, the breakaway faction has to have the support of at least 40% central committee members – and Prachanda will now have well over 40% support. 

Prachanda is a shrewd political operator. He knows that Oli, even though he may now look impregnable, is hobbled with poor health, and that the chronic kidney patient may not have very many days left in active politics. Now by guaranteeing for himself the second rank in the new party’s hierarchy, Prachanda reckons power is within his grasp.

So even as Oli has further consolidated his power after the Left merger, it is Prachanda who will be the happiest. In one master-stroke, he has effectively neutralised the opposition he could have expected from veteran UML leaders like Madhav Nepal and Jalanath Khanal, both of whom have been placed after Prachanda in the new party’s seniority roll call.

May 17, 2018 may be a truly momentous day for the communist movement in Nepal, which started with the formation of the Communist Party of Nepali in Calcutta in 1949. Yet it may just as well be remembered as the day Prachanda aced the ultimate test of parliamentary politics, the system against which he waged a bloody war that cost the lives of nearly 16,000 Nepalis

Biswas Baral is the editor of The Annapurna Express published from Kathmandu. He tweets @biswasktm