Even by Prime Minister K P Oli’s standards, this was risky brinkmanship: three days after he lost a confidence vote in Parliament he remains in office after dividing the other parties to ensure they could not muster the numbers to form a new coalition.
Oli’s two-pronged strategy hinged on ensuring that the Mahanta Thakur faction of the Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP) would stay neutral and not join any partnership with the Nepali Congress and the Maoist Centre. And he brought back a dissident faction of his UML led by Madhav Kumar Nepal, who was threatening to resign from Parliament with about 25 loyalists.
If they had resigned, the NC-Maoist-JSP coalition would have been possible, since the total number of seats in Parliament would be reduced. Without the Nepal faction and the JSP’s Thakur group, however, the NC-Maoist coalition effort failed.
After Oli lost the House vote on 10 May, President Bidya Devi Bhandari had given a deadline till 9pm on Thursday for two or more parties in Parliament to demonstrate that they had the numbers to form a new government.
Oli will now continue as caretaker prime minister and has another one month to prove that he has the confidence of the House. With the dissident faction back in the fold, the UML with 121 seats will need 15 more votes to get the 136 needed to remain in government.
Oli therefore has one month to bargain with Thakur, and will possibly have to promise ministerial berths in return for support. Meanwhile, the Thakur group of the JSP took its MPs to a resort above Bhaktapur so that there would be no effort by the rival faction led by Upendra Yadav and Baburam Bhattarai to woo them away.
The return of the Nepal faction back into the UML took some deft give-and-take on Thursday. With some moderate members from both sides of the party divide mediating, Oli was persuaded on Thursday morning to withdraw the suspension of five Nepal loyalists.
In the afternoon, Oli and Nepal met for four hours in the Chapali Heights mansion of businessman and publisher Rameshwar Thapa, and ironed out a deal that made it possible for Oli to stay on in office for another month. That deal included an agreement for Nepal’s 25 MPs not to resign en masse from Parliament, and to form a task force to iron out the differences between the two factions that had held the country hostage for so long.
Nepal and Oli have been party rivals and have nursed personal grudges against each other for two decades. After the UML merged with the Maoists in 2018, Nepal sided with Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoists, and put pressure on Oli to step down as PM and party chair.
Increasingly cornered, Oli dissolved the Lower House on 20 December and called for early elections. But the Supreme Court reversed that decision, reinstating Parliament. However, the court also ruled that the NCP be disbanded into the Maoist Centre and UML.
Without the Maoists, the UML did not have the requisite number of MPs to stay in power, and that is when Nepal threatened to bolt. Oli then called for a vote of confidence in the House, even though he seems to have known that he would lose.
Known as a master manipulator, it looks now like Oli had his next steps all planned. And the fast-paced events on Thursday proved that it all worked out for him in the end.
There is still much bad blood between Oli and Nepal, and Nepal still does not completely trust Oli. Nepal told the media after his marathon talk: ‘We will not resign for a few more days. We will see what happened in one month.’
At the other end of town, Pushpa Kamal Dahal was holding a meeting with his Maoist Centre comrades, and sources said he expressed his disappointment over being “let down” by Nepal.
“He (Nepal) got tangled in technicalities, and could not take a bold political decision,” Dahal was quoted by the source as saying.
All this high political drama in Kathmandu was happening on a day that the country registered 8,900 new Covid-19 cases, and 214 more deaths due to the disease, taking the total toll to 4,466. Although the positivity rate is still high at 44%, there were more than 5,000 recoveries in the past 24 hours. There are more than 110,000 active cases in Nepal, and the capital has thick with smoke from burning funeral pyres.
In the next month, Oli will have to make up for all the failures in mis-steps of the past year to lead a transparent, dynamic and scientific fight against the pandemic. This is a change for him to devote his full attention to bringing relief to Nepalis suffering from the ferocious second wave with a checklist of priorities that includes vaccines, oxygen, masks, Covid-dedicated hospitals, isolation centres.
Nepal is going through an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, and it needs a whole new kind of governance culture, one based not on politics as usual, but a united campaign that rises above partisanship to vanquish the virus.