Two rival coalitions of Nepal’s left, right and centre parties have both staked conflicting claims to lead the country after a prolonged power struggle that has impacted the capacity to deal with a raging Covid-19 second wave.
The leader of the opposition Nepali Congress (NC) Sher Bahadur Deuba collected 149 signatures from his own party, the Maoist Centre (MC) as well as dissident factions of the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) and Oli’s own UML. The number was supposed to be enough to make Deuba Nepal’s prime minister for the fifth time.
However, Prime Minister K P Oli reached Shital Nibas ahead of Deuba and his supporters on Friday afternoon with a claim to have the support of 153 members from his own UML party and the JSP. However, both the UML and JSP have dissident factions who have sided with the rival group.
The NC-MC-JSP coalition was cobbled together with the NC’s 61 members, 48 from the MC, 27 from the the Madhav Kumar Nepal faction of Oli’s UML, and 13 from the Upendra Yadav group within the JSP.
President Bidya Devi Bhandari had given parties in Parliament till 5PM on Friday to prove that they had the numbers to form a new government. The new coalition needed 136 votes in the 266 voting members of the House to form a government.
However, with a four-time prime minister and current three-time PM claiming the prime minister-ship, President Bhandari was huddled with constitutional experts till late Friday trying to decide which was more legitimate.
While all this drama is being played out on the political stage, Nepal registered 177 more deaths in the last 24 hours taking the total so far to over 6,000 — the number of fatalities has doubled in 3 weeks. There were 8,607 new infections and 7,890 recoveries on Friday.
There are more than 112,000 active cases, most recovering at home or in isolation centres. The hospitals are full, with nearly 2,000 people in ICU and 500 in ventilators — most of them in Kathmandu Valley.
This seems to matter little in the headcount to form the next government. If Deuba becomes prime minister, it will be his fifth time to lead the country, while Oli was serving as prime minister for the third time even though he lost a confidence vote in Parliament on 10 May. Last week he was given a month to prove he had the support of the House.
Oli appears to have banked on the opposition not being able to get the requisite numbers, so that the House would be dissolved and he could declare early elections.
Till a few hours before the deadline, Oli appeared so sanguine the opposition would not have a majority, that he told a press meet he was compelled to end the impasse by dissolving Parliament, and calling elections because the other side could not get enough members to form an alternative government.
However, after it became apparent that a meeting of opposition figures from the NC, MC, JSP and UML at Deuba’s mansion in Budanilkantha by Friday noon could muster the votes, Oli also decided to stake his claim.
President Bhandari has already been dragged into controversy, with many in the opposition calling her a ‘rubber stamp’ and a ‘puppet’ of the Oli government for previous decisions which they said favoured the prime minister.
For his part, Oli told the press meet on Friday that it was unfair to drag the President into controversy because she was a constitutional figure and was required to agree to decisions of an elected government. He called critics of the President “anti-republican”.
The rival claims hinge on the interpretation of sentences and phrases in the Constitution about whether party strength or member numbers should count in gauging support of Parliament.
The NC-MC-JSP coalition claims to have support of UML dissidents to reach 149 signatures. Oli, meanwhile, has counted all 121 members of his UML, including the dissident faction, as well as all 34 members of the JSP including even staunch Oli critics like Baburam Bhattarai and Upendra Yadav.
Adding to the complication is that on Friday evening, some members of the UML said they had not signed up support for the NC-MC-JSP group, and they were still with Oli. It is not clear how many said they had not signed, and whether this number could be enough to top the balance.
The presidential secretariat will now have to verify each signature by vetting individual members from both sides. Adding Oli’s 153 and Deuba’s 149, exceeds the total members in Parliament, which means quite a few members are being counted by both sides.
Oli was elected prime minister in the 2017 election after his UML party forged an alliance with the Maoist Centre party led by former guerrilla chieftain Pushpa Kamal Dahal. After sweeping the polls the two parties merged into the Nepal Communist Party with an understanding that the two would rotate becoming prime minister during the five-year term.
However, relations soon soured between Dahal and Oli, and two powerful UML leaders Madhav Nepal and Jhalnath Khanal also joined the Dahal faction. The political infighting played on right through the Covid-19 crisis in Nepal for the past year, with the two sides even holding large political rallies in the cities as a show of strength.
Getting wind that the Dahal faction was registering a vote of no confidence in Parliament, Oli dissolved the lower house on 20 December. But the Supreme Court overturned that decision, and subsequently also ruled that the NCP be disbanded into the UML and the Maoists Centre.
Having lost his parliamentary majority the Oli government tried desperately to stay on in power by a strategy of divide-and-rule in which he effectively split the other parties by getting a faction to side with him.
Till recently, Deuba was standing by Oli, as was JSP party president Mahant Thakur. In the end, the NC went along with the coalition, but Thakur kept neutral and did not join the anti-Oli coalition on Friday.
The coalition of the NC, MC and sections of the JSP and UML represents a swathe of Nepal’s political spectrum, brought together by a common aversion of K P Oli. It does not include the Hindu-royal RPP, which had actually been gunning for early elections.