Sapkota for House Speaker is a win for the Maoist faction of ruling partyDahal, who had long been sidelined by Oli in the party, has bounced back and ensured that the Maoists maintain at least one high-level state position.
After a month-long negotiation, Nepal Communist Party Co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal on Sunday managed to extract a concession from Co-chair KP Sharma Oli—Agni Sapkota for the House Speaker.
Oli had long been trying to install Subas Nembang as the new Speaker but Dahal’s exercise has paid off and Sapkota is now the candidate of choice for both chairs of the ruling party.
Sapkota’s selection has settled a month-long row and provided insight into Dahal’s machinations within the ruling party, especially at a time when he has appeared to be on the backfoot against Oli, who is also the prime minister.
“At least in this instance, Oli appears to have been out-manoeuvred by Dahal,” said a central committee member who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Oli had tried his best to get Nembang, who is from the UML faction, for the Speaker’s post but that resulted in the deferral of House meetings as Dahal refused to budge, according to the central committee member who represents the former UML in the party.
Oli even held a separate meeting with party spokesperson Narayan Kaji Shrestha, who represents the Maoist faction, to court the former Maoists and even attempted to employ Deputy Speaker Shiva Maya Tumbahangphe as a bargaining chip with Dahal, said the UML faction leader.
Tumbahangphe, who is a former UML member, had refused to resign as deputy Speaker and had laid claim to the post of Speaker. Dahal was faced with a conundrum where he could either agree to Oli’s choice of Nembang, or stick to Sapkota and eventually accept Tumbahangphe; either way, they were both from the UML, said the UML faction leader.
Sapkota is currently facing a murder charge for a killing during the insurgency, and his selection as Speaker has already created tensions among rights advocates and conflict victims.
The former Maoists, however, were not willing to give up the post of Speaker, as all other high-level positions in the state are with the UML faction of the ruling party. The Maoists were concerned that if they lost the post of Speaker, they would have no representation in key institutions.
The posts of President, prime minister, deputy prime minister and chairman of the National Assembly are all with the UML faction. A UML Speaker would have rendered the Maoist faction without representation in the Constitutional Council as well. Dahal did not give up and, instead, convinced Oli to relent.
If the Speaker post had not been given over to the former Maoists, the ruling party would’ve faced serious trouble, according to political analyst Hari Roka.
“Because the former UML has a major share in all top positions of the state, the Maoists risked getting sidelined again,” said Roka. “Oli tried his best but did not succeed, showing that Dahal is trying to regain his position in the party.”
A ruling party leader who has close relations with Oli said Dahal used every trick in the book to reconsolidate power. A January 8 meeting in Bhaisepati at Bamdev Gautam’s residence with former UML leaders Madhav Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal helped Dahal turn the tables on Oli as Dahal had managed to get a majority of leaders on his side, according to the leader.
“The meeting not only placed more pressure on Oli but Dahal also appears to have given Gautam his approval for amending the constitution so that it can pave the way for him to become prime minister,” said the leader. “Second, Dahal did not compromise at all on Sapkota's name, who has always been his loyalist.”
Gautam, who is not an elected member of the House of Representatives, has been lobbying the two chairs to amend the constitution so that he can occupy a high position in government, preferably prime minister.
According to leaders from the Dahal camp, Sapkota as House Speaker will go some ways towards balancing out the power equation in both the party and government.
“There was a kind of dismay inside the former Maoist camp but with the selection of Sapkota as Speaker, there is relief,” said Mani Thapa, a Standing Committee member and a former Maoist.
Even Dahal’s decision to merge the Maoist party with the UML itself was part of a bigger plan on his part, according to leaders.
The 2013 Constituent Assembly elections had relegated the Maoist party to the third position, even forcing Maoist leaders to claim that the polls were rigged. The Maoist party’s popularity was on the wane and Dahal as chairman had even attempted alliances with the Nepali Congress and the UML to maintain some relevancy. It was only when all else failed that Dahal had decided to merge with the UML, say party leaders.
When the UML and the Maoists in October 2017 appeared on the same stage to announce their future course together, it was largely aimed at an electoral alliance.
But the 2017 elections gave the UML and Maoists a huge mandate, hastening their unification. But even though the UML and Maoists announced a merger in May 2018, many within the party continue to believe that it was a union of convenience.
Their suspicions came to pass as once Oli became prime minister, he not only rammed through legislation on his own but also continued to run the government and party almost unilaterally, forcing Dahal to play second fiddle.
After months of struggle, Dahal managed to “get” the post of executive chairman through a party Secretariat meeting. Since then, Dahal had been trying to reconsolidate power in the party.
However, Oli’s loyalists defended the decision to pick Sapkota, saying since the post was earlier held by former Maoists, it was only obvious that they would retain it.
“All our decisions are taken by the two chairmen. As we are still in transition in terms of party unity, there is no question of losing or winning,” said Chhabilal Bishwokarma, a central committee member of the ruling party.
“During party unification, the post of Speaker was allotted to the former Maoists so this decision will not make much difference inside our party.”