Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba took office nearly two months ago, but aside from five ministers he has not been able to set up a full Cabinet.
It is not for the lack of trying: he needs to balance disparate demands of coalition partners who want their rewards for backing him. The second Covid wave may be waning, and Kathmandu Valley lifted its three-month lockdown on Wednesday, but the economy and development are at a standstill.
But that seems to be of little concern to personalities in the parlours of power whose eyes are set on grabbing important portfolios ahead of the 2023 elections so they can build up war chests, as well as command the government and security apparatus.
Staking their claims to Cabinet positions are Madhav Kumar Nepal who launched his own party, the CPN (United Socialist) on 25 August, and whose defection in July led to the collapse of the K P Oli government, and paved the way for Deuba to become prime minister for the fifth time.
Deuba also needs to pacify other members of the five-party alliance, including his own Nepali Congress (NC), where rival factions need to be placated ahead of his party’s general convention in November so that he can counter rivals for presidentship.
Deuba has to decide whether it is more important to pacify dissidents like Ram Chandra Poudel, or dangle carrots in front of members supporting Bimalendra Nidhi’s candidature for president of the NC.
The Maoist Centre (MC) is also demanding its share, and not just a pound of flesh. The MC’s Pushpa Kamal Dahal complained publicly that he was under “tremendous stress” because of demands from many of the party’s 49 members for ministerships. “I wish I could make all 49 MPs ministers, but there are only 7 slots,” an exasperated Dahal told a gathering last month.
Then there is the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) which, besides its own ministerial candidates, is also putting pressure on Deuba to retract the ordinance he used to allow Madhav Nepal to split off from the UML.
That ordinance allowed the Mahanta Thakur faction to also break away from the JSP because it lowered the constitutional threshold of parliamentary party membership for a formal split. The JSP now fears more dissidents may leave the party.
Two lengthy meetings of coalition leaders this week in Baluwatar failed to agree on the ministerial lineup. The NC and MC have divided up the most important ministries between themselves. Deuba already has his loyalists in the home affairs and law ministries, and the state minister for health. The Maoists have finance and energy. The two also want to keep foreign affairs, defence, and information.
The JSP and United Socialists will have to make do with remaining ministries, and are haggling over the more lucrative ones. Deuba’s problem is that the Constitution only allows 25 ministries in government, and his aides say the partners are working on a compromise but a deal “may take a few more days”.
There are also demands from within coalition members. Dahal has to placate comrades from the conflict days. Even the JSP has not been able to finalise its list in order to strike a Mountain-Madhes balance. The remaining member of the alliance, Rastriya Janamorcha has only one MP and has said it does not want to be a part of the government.
Deuba is working on a quota of 5-7 portfolios for Madhav Nepal’s United Socialists, five more ministries for the Maoists and the JSP, and five more for his own NC. And with that he will have hit the limit for Cabinet size. Negotiations within the coalition are expected to drag on.