Congress revising strategy as court decision changes political equationsWith the CPN-UML and the Maoist Centre revived, the main opposition is exploring two options—leading the government and going for early elections.
The Nepali Congress, which had been waiting for a formal split in the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) until a few days ago and was mulling at least four options, is now suddenly scrambling to revise its strategy, as the communist party now has split in a way that the Congress did not expect.
Instead of the Election Commission, the Supreme Court on Sunday effected a split—along the CPN-UML and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) lines. The court also invalidated the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), NCP within brackets, that was registered under KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal in June 2018.
Congress leaders say they are closely following the developments and that they are currently working on two strategies—either leading the government or early polls.
Ram Chandra Poudel, a senior leader who leads his own faction opposed to party President Sher Bahadur Deuba, said that the first priority should be removal of Oli as the prime minister.
“Yes, a deep crisis has been averted as the country was heading towards political uncertainties,” Poudel told the Post in a phone interview. “But the situation is still very tricky for us.”
Poudel had fiercely opposed Oli’s House dissolution while Deuba had taken a softer approach towards the move. But after the Supreme Court reinstated the House, the Congress party said it would make a move only after the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) saw a formal split. As two factions—one led by Oli and the other by Dahal and Nepal—were squabbling, a legal split recognised by the Election Commission would have given the Congress party a chance to make a studied move whether to join hands with Oli or Dahal and Nepal.
But the Supreme Court decision, Congress leaders say, has completely changed the political scenario.
“We have not begun any discussion on the future roadmap, but one thing is certain that we should consider the process of forming a new government by removing Oli,” said Poudel. “We cannot say who will or should lead the new coalition government though.”
The process to remove Oli can start on two conditions—either the Maoist Centre, which has 53 seats in the House, withdraws support, or the Nepali Congress, which has 63 seats, files a no-confidence motion against Oli.
But if former UML leaders, including those who are on the Dahal-Nepal side, come together, Oli can continue to be in power with the support of the Janata Samajbadi Party, which has 34 seats in Parliament.
In the 2017 elections, the UML had won 121 seats and the Maoist Centre 53. Within UML, Oli and Nepal were said to have controlled 78-80 and 38-40 seats respectively, give or take.
For the Congress party, the revival of the UML means getting its old competitor back in the game.
“Once the UML and the Maoist Centre are re-established as two separate parties, in the next power equilibrium, the UML will hold more than 70 percent strength of the erstwhile Nepal Communist Party,” said Ramesh Lekhak, a Congress Central Working Committee member. “So no doubt, [with the court decision] Oli’s UML has emerged as a powerful political force.”
For the Congress party, it either has to oust Oli or play along with him.
“The next step is obviously early elections. With the Supreme Court decision, we now have a hung parliament which cannot ensure political stability,” said Lekhak. “So it’s obvious that we have elections in sight. But we are equally concerned about what will happen if the UML and the Maoist Centre reach some kind of pre-polls alliance as they did in 2017.”
The Nepali Congress continues to hold grudges against the Maoist Centre for the latter’s betrayal just ahead of the November-December polls in 2017. The Maoist Centre in 2016 had pulled the rug from under Oli and formed a coalition government with the Nepali Congress agreeing that Dahal and Deuba would lead the governments in turn.
But just ahead of the polls, Dahal joined hands with Oli, leaving the Congress party seething. The Oli-Dahal alliance worked well, as their parties were given a strong mandate, much to the chagrin of the Congress party.
Lekhak wondered what if Madhav Kumar Nepal might manage to effect a patch-up between Oli and Dahal again.
“We have to be cautious and form our strategy accordingly,” Lekhak, who is considered close to Deuba, told the Post.
After the court order to revive the UML and the Maoist Centre, Nepal, a former prime minister, is on the horns of a dilemma. The number of lawmakers—around 40—he controls is not enough for him to break away from the UML to form a new party. Whether he will stick around with Dahal under the Maoist Centre is not yet clear. If he does, he will have to relinquish his lawmaker’s post.
Some Congress leaders say the party is now waiting for Oli to make the next move before opening their cards.
Since Oli appears to have emerged as a more powerful leader, the Congress is watching him more carefully.
According to a senior leader, who did not wish to be named, Oli has by now taken control over the state apparatus and joining hands with him would make him even more powerful.
“That’s why we have to consider forming a government with the support of Maoist Centre and Janata Samajbadi Party,” the leader told the Post. “And we should lead the government.”
Gagan Thapa, a Central Working Committee member, ruled out any possibility of going to the elections under Oli’s leadership.
“He is our sole contender, how can we go to elections under Oli’s leadership,” Thapa told the Post. “It by and large looks like the country is headed for polls. Who should lead the government and what kind of coalition will be formed are some of the issues that we are yet to discuss in detail.”
Before taking any decision about formation of the next government, Nepali Congress is holding the meetings of the party's Central Working Committee and the Parliamentary Party.
If the Maoist Centre withdraws its support to Oli, he will have to seek a vote of confidence.
“Oli is likely to seek a vote of confidence, but we won’t support him. We have an opportunity to form the next government,” said Thapa. “We will discuss later whether we should lead the government or allow leaders from the Maoist Centre or the Janata Samajbadi Party to lead it.”
An early election, however, looks inevitable, according to Thapa.
Congress President Deuba so far has not reacted to Sunday’s court verdict.
Deuba is consulting, said a leader close to him, with leaders of his camp who have told him that next one year will be very crucial for the party as it has to remove Oli, has to form a new coalition government and the party has to organise its 14th general convention in September.
Deuba is eyeing party leadership once again.
The leader close to Deuba said that going by the situation, an early election suits the Congress party the most.
“Our bottom line is clear at least for now—remove Oli and aim for early elections,” said party spokesperson Bishwa Prakash Sharma.
But Congress leaders are not sure whether Oli should be removed by not extending support to his vote of confidence or by moving a no-confidence motion against him on its own with the backing of the Maoist Centre and Janata Samajbadi Party.
Things will be clearer after holding discussions with Dahal and Janata Samajbadi Party leaders.
As per Article 76 (2), Oli, who will be reduced in minority after the Maoist Centre withdraws its support, has to seek a vote of confidence. If Oli fails, his government will collapse and the process to form a new government as per Article 76 (5) will begin.
The leader, who has support of majority votes, will become the prime minister. In that scenario, a joint government is possible between the Nepali Congress, Maoist Centre and Janata Samajbadi Party. The government formed thus must seek a vote of confidence within 30 days. Failure to do so will result in the House dissolution and polls within six months.
“We are closely following developments,” said Sharma. “Sooner or later, elections have to be held. Since the Supreme Court has made these communist leaders without a party, we are watching how the Oli faction has been impacted.”