The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) has just 32 seats in the 275-member House of Representatives (HoR). But its chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, managed to become prime minister on December 25, sidelining the first and second largest parties – Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, respectively – by securing the support of 169 lawmakers. After 17 days, on Tuesday, Dahal took a vote of confidence from the House, securing the support of 268 out of the 270 lawmakers who were present for the voting.
The support from CPN (Unified Socialist) and Loktantrik Samajbadi Party for Dahal was anticipated. However, in a surprise move, the largest party Nepali Congress, which has 89 seats in Parliament, decided to extend him support. The only two lawmakers who voted against Dahal were Prem Suwal of the Nepal Majdoor Kishan Party and Chitra Bahadur K.C. of the Rastriya Janamoarcha Party, two fringe communist parties ideologically closer to the Maoist party.
Why did the Nepali Congress decide to vote for Dahal? It seems even senior party leaders aren’t quite clear on the answer.
In a tweet, senior journalist and prominent activist Kanak Mani Dixit wrote: “Smell a rat? Near-total support for a prime minister commanding 32 seats in Parliament (only 18 through direct ballot) after NC helps create a Parliament sans opposition. Indication of the external push to secure pliable government, selection of President, etc.”
Soon after the November 20 elections, the Nepali Congress, which emerged as the largest party, staked claim for their candidates for the posts of both prime minister and president. This rigid position forced Dahal to join hands with the CPN-UML and other fringe parties.
On the eve of the floor test, Dahal made a personal request for support by going to former prime minister and Nepali Congress chief Sher Bahadur Deuba’s house.
While top Nepali Congress leaders advised Deuba that the party should stay in the opposition, the latter forcefully bulldozed through the disagreement as he maintains a strong command over the party’s decision-making process. The party’s general secretaries and influential youth leaders, Gagan Kumar Thapa and Bishwa Prakash Sharma, and other leaders registered their note of dissent over the party’s decision.
The Nepali Congress’s decision has left Nepal’s Parliament sans a main opposition – a rare phenomenon but not a new one. In 1994, like today, the Nepali Congress supported a vote of confidence for a minority government led by CPN-UML leader Man Mohan Adhikari.
Deuba also faces heavy internal criticism for failing to negotiate properly with the Maoist party on a power-sharing deal. The breakdown of the pre-poll alliance and the formation of a new coalition of Maoist, UML, Rastriya Swantra Party, Rashtriya Prajatantra Party, Janamat Party and Nagarik Unmukti Party pushed the Nepali Congress into the opposition. With this, the largest party lost the opportunity to form governments in the provinces and hold powerful positions like president and speaker.
In terms of pure numbers, Dahal has emerged as a powerful prime minister in recent political history. In 2018, then-Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli secured more than two-thirds support in Parliament, but the government collapsed after three years. But Dahal may not be as powerful as he seems. Politically, he is leading a very fragile coalition that is a mixed bag of left and right forces. It will be tough for Dahal to meet the demands of all parties that have supported him in the Parliament. Dahal will not be able address the demands of fringe parties because the UML, RPP and RSP have divergent positions and agendas related to Madhes and Tharu.
So the speculation is that by maintaining ties with Dahal, the Nepali Congress hopes to revive the previous coalition by changing the balance of power and sidelining the CPN-UML.
So far, the ruling coalition has finalised power-sharing modalities in the provinces. But there is bargaining over the posts of president and speaker, which may undo the quickly stitched-up coalition – or so the Nepali Congress hopes.
Analysts believe Nepali Congress’s decision will give Dahal the upper hand in the power-sharing talks with the CPN-UML on the high constitutional posts. According to leaders, Dahal has agreed to hand over both the president and speaker positions to the CPN-UML, but there are deep reservations inside the Maoist party. Such a decision is not viewed favourably by several Maoist leaders. It would effectively mean that halfway through the five-year term, all the powerful positions, such as prime minister, speaker and president, would be handed over to the UML – because Dahal has already agreed to hand over power to Oli after two and a half years.
The future of the government depends on this precarious relationship between Dahal and Oli. By voting for Dahal in Parliament, the Nepali Congress has given a clear message that it stands ready to rescue Dahal if he falls into a minority.
Kamal Dev Bhattarai is a Kathmandu-based journalist and political commentator.