Dahal wants to be prime minister. Does he stand a chance?The Maoist supremo is trying to cash in on internal conflict in the Congress and to leverage his position as kingmaker.
Anil Giri & Tika R Pradhan
With the counting of both the first-past-the-post (FPTP) and proportional representation (PR) votes of the November 20 elections nearly over, leaders have intensified meetings and behind-the-curtain negotiations to form a new government and, above all, to decide the new prime minister.
There are several claimants for the post. Incumbent Sher Bahadur Deuba, CPN (Maoist Centre) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Nepali Congress General Secretary Gagan Thapa, and Congress leader Ram Chandra Paudel, among others, have already staked their claims to the top executive job.
And with no party getting a majority, there is no clarity on the shape of the new government as well as on its leadership.
A section of the Congress establishment camp has already proposed Deuba for prime minister. “We should not seek an alternative to Deuba,” Congress Vice-president Purna Bahadur Khadka said on Thursday.
“We went to the election under his leadership and got respectable results. So no one should doubt that Deuba is the undisputed candidate for parliamentary party leader,” he added. As per the charter of the Nepali Congress, any lawmaker aspiring to become prime minister should first be elected parliamentary party leader.
Khadka, a lieutenant of Deuba, met Dahal on Thursday and discussed government formation. But as the new government will be a coalition one, the Congress needs the support of coalition partners to get Deuba appointed prime minister.
Maoist chair Dahal, who claims to have been cheated out of the post by CPN-UML chair KP Sharma Oli in the post-2017 government, is himself waiting in the wings to head the next government. Also, Dahal and Deuba reportedly have a gentleman’s agreement to lead the next government by turns; Maoist Centre insiders say Dahal wants to become prime minister for the first two and a half years.
But Deuba is quietly making his own preparations to head the new government and is working to bring the Janamat Party and the Nagarik Unmukti Party, besides the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party, on board. On Thursday Deuba separately met Janamat Party chief CK Raut and Loktantrik Samajbadi Party chair Mahantha Thakur. Raut also met Dahal on Thursday evening and discussed the possibility of joining the government.
Maoist Centre leaders, meanwhile, are hoping that the ruling alliance would readily accept Dahal as next prime minister, arguing that he played a crucial role in unseating the Oli-led government and rallying support behind Deuba last year.
“A section of Nepali Congress leaders also fears that Dahal can switch sides and join the UML camp,” a senior Nepali Congress leader said, adding, “Before Dahal takes such a drastic step, we have to accept him as next prime minister and save the alliance.”
UML Chairman Oli, meanwhile, has already invited Dahal to sit for talks to discuss a new leftist government under the latter’s leadership. Oli has reportedly proposed heading the new government alternately for two and a half years each.
But Maoist leaders doubt the offer. According to a senior Maoist leader, UML is a divided house with competing interest groups, and Oli’s offer may not be genuine. “We are getting patchy and mixed signals from the UML, so as of now the possibility of our party partnering with the UML is low,” said the Maoist leader.
The leader said Dahal has already told some Maoist leaders in private that he will look for an opportunity to lead the next government.
But the road to premiership will be a bumpy one for Dahal. Some ruling alliance leaders like Minister for Urban Development of the CPN (Unified Socialist), Metmani Chaudhary, have already announced that Deuba will be the next prime minister. Chaudhary, speaking in Kathmandu on Thursday, even claimed that under a new power-sharing deal, his party is likely to appoint the new Speaker of the House of Representatives while the Maoist Centre’s nominee may be the President.
He rejected the possibility of a left coalition government involving the UML and said the current ruling coalition will most likely settle on a power-sharing deal with member parties sharing top posts including the President, Vice-president, Prime Minister, Speaker, Deputy speaker and provincial chief ministers.
“A UML-led coalition is not possible now. The existing coalition itself will form the new government. And as the biggest party in the coalition, the Congress has every right to lead the government. The Maoist Centre is the second-largest in the coalition, so it will settle for President,” Chaudhary said. “We may also claim the Speaker’s post. I think talks will move ahead accordingly.”
Though vote-counting in the three remaining constituencies—Bajura, Syangja and Dolakha—is under way, the counting of all proportional representation votes is set to be completed and a picture of the parties’ respective strengths is already clear.
The Nepali Congress will be the largest party with around 90 seats, followed by the UML with 80 seats, while the Maoist Centre is headed for third position with around 31 seats. The Rastriya Swatantra Party, the new outfit led by journalist Rabi Lamichhane, with around 21 seats, will be the fourth biggest parliamentary party.
While some think the chances of Maoist Centre chair Dahal heading the new government have diminished with the party’s ‘unexpectedly poor showing’ in the elections, others believe that Dahal is still a kingmaker and will make best use of his options to get to power.
However, given the growing internal conflict within the Congress party with its general secretary Bishwa Prakash Sharma prepared to field Gagan Thapa, another general secretary, for prime minister, some observers say Dahal could take advantage of the infighting and become the prime minister for the first two-year term.
Not only General Secretary Thapa, senior leader Ram Chandra Poudel and leader Shekhar Koirala are also eyeing the coveted post. Poudel too has already started lobbying with influential leaders across parties to back his own bid.
“There is an intense conflict in the Congress to remove Deuba from the helm,” said Ramesh Malla, chief personal secretary to Maoist chair Dahal. “Although serious discussions on government leadership are yet to start, we cannot rule out the possibility of our chairman leading the new government with Congress’ support.”
Meanwhile, Dahal on Wednesday went to Sukute in Sindhupalchok, apparently to seek a respite from Kathmandu’s hectic schedule. There he met his confidants including former speaker Agni Sapkota and expressed his readiness to lead the next government with the coalition’s support.
“Our party’s first priority is to form a government from within the existing coalition and we believe our party chair should get to lead the government in the first go,” Maoist Centre’s Sindhupalchok district in-charge Madhav Sapkota, who won the parliamentary seat from Sindhupalchowk-1, told the Post. Dahal’s trip was arranged by Sapkota.
As part of the coalition’s preparations to form new government, Dahal along with CPN (Unified Socialist) chair Madhav Nepal and Nepal Samajbadi Party chair Baburam Bhattarai recently met Resham Chaudhary, the jailed leader of the Nagarik Unmukti Party (which has won three FPTP seats in the lower house), at Dillibazar Sadarkhor prison.
Meanwhile, two Unified Socialist leaders talking to the Post dismissed the possibility of the Congress supporting Dahal’s bid for prime minister. “The first priority of the Congress establishment faction is prime minister for Deuba and if not, it could propose Ram Chandra Poudel for the post. I don’t think they will back a communist to lead the government,” said a senior Unified Socialist leader asking not to be named.
The leader also rejected the possibility of Dahal partnering with the UML to become prime minister. “I have also heard of Oli’s PM proposal for Dahal. But I don’t think they can muster a majority.”