The UML General Convention in Chitwan with its lavish stage, and huge attendance sounds and feels like an election rally. And in a sense it is. The convention’s mascot is an upright rhino, and sure enough a video clip of real rhino sauntering to the venue has gone viral on Nepal’s cybersphere.
Nepal’s main opposition party is trying to elect its top party leaders this weekend, but the speeches are all about how the UML (Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist-Leninist) will emerge as the main party in polls scheduled for 2023, and the others will bite the dust.
Unconventional party conventions, Shristi Karki
This jamboree will be followed next week by the party convention of the ruling Nepali Congress (NC), which has been rescheduled seven times. The NC convention in Kathmandu will try to outdo the UML one in pomp and circumstance, also with an eye on impressing voters.
Nepal’s 2017 Constitution, as well as the NC’s own statute, dictates that national conventions be held every four years, setting four-year term limits for members at all levels of the party. The constitution does allow for an extension of up to one year under ‘exceptional circumstances’, but even if the pandemic can be described as ‘exceptional’, the convention should have been held by March this year.
In its 70-year history, the NC’s four yearly conventions have always been conducted without fail even during periods of crisis. Legal experts had started warning that the NC did not have any legal standing in Nepal’s politics.
“Nepali Congress is no longer a legitimate party as per the provisions of Nepal’s as well as the party’s own Constitution,” says Krishna Khanal, professor of political science. “To go about business as usual—as if it doesn’t matter when the general convention is held as long as ward-level conventions are taking place—is deceitful.”
Meanwhile, the number of active members in the NC has gone up by half a million in the days leading up to the convention, even as NC insiders admit that many party loyalists have defected in recent years.
Barring a few district and local level leaders who seem dedicated to doing their jobs, the NC has become trapped in an ‘elite nexus’. Experts agree that there is no justification in holding party conventions if the same party members are elected into leadership every time.
“The Nepali Congress will not go anywhere as long as tried and tested individuals are constantly brought back into leadership, and the country will not move forward until there is a complete overhaul of leadership,” says political analyst Puranjan Acharya.
Even the party’s leadership is concerned over what they see as a lack of a democratic culture within the NC. “When leaders disregard party rules and procedures for their self-interest, democracy within the party becomes weak.” says NC Central Committee member Dhanraj Gurung, “And the consequences of such actions are reverberating through Nepal’s branches of government at present.”
The real story in Nepal’s Supreme Court debacle, Charan Prasai
That criticism of the NC would fit the UML just as well, where current party president and former Prime Minister K P Oli has tried to ensure that he remains at the helm while sidelining all critics, even after the Madhav Kumar Nepal faction split off to form the Unified Socialists.
The UML convention is also taking place after a seven-year gap even though party rules dictated it should have been held in 2019. But the UML’s short-lived merger with Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Maoist Centre in 2018 gave party leaders–who reasoned that the merger period should be considered null and void –as an excuse for not holding the conclave when it was supposed to.
“Such antics do not represent the principles of a party that was formed all those years ago to bring about societal transformation,” Khanal says.
The UML is fielding a symbolic 1,999 candidates elected from across Nepal in Chitwan to elect a new party leader. KP Oli runs largely unchallenged for the position of chair in the absence of previous contenders Jhala Nath Khanal and Madhav Kumar Nepal.
Oli seems to have adopted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s style of ruling his party with an iron fist, and is certain to be reelected.
“It is not possible for anybody within the UML to become a Central Committee member if KP Oli does not approve. Philosophy and ideas are no longer welcome in the UML, just blindly following the leader’s instructions,” says analyst Acharya. “But then again, the UML has always been a one-man show.”
Nepal PM Oli goes it alone, Nepali Times