Opposition alliance builds pressure on Oli, but it too faces questions galoreThe group with five former prime ministers also has answers to provide to the public and come up with what exactly it is aiming for, analysts say.
Of the many political events Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, also the chair of the CPN-UML, has set in motion over the past few months, one stands out. In what may easily be described as an unprecedented political shift and a massive polarisation, five former prime ministers—Sher Bahadur Deuba, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal and Baburam Bhattarai—have come together to form what is the “opposition alliance”.
Ever since Oli dissolved the House of Representatives on May 21, the five former prime ministers have issued at least three joint statements. In the first statement, issued on June 12 , they even warned of foreign interference, without naming names, but it was not difficult for even a layman to guess they were referring to India. In other statements, they have appealed to the state machinery not to cooperate with Oli and called on the public to unite against “Oli’s shenanigans”.
On Thursday, they held an interaction with editors of various media outlets to “discuss contemporary politics” and solicit journalists’ views.
Deuba and Dahal, four- and two-time prime ministers, explained the objective of the opposition alliance.
The opposition alliance consists of the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), a faction of the UML led by Nepal and Khanal, a faction of the Janata Samajbadi Party led by Bhattarai and Upenedra Yadav and Janamorcha Nepal.
The alliance has even filed a petition at the Supreme Court, with signatures of 146 lawmakers from the dissolved House, against President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s moves of rejecting Deuba’s claim for the prime minister post and dissolving the House.
“We have constituted a front of five political parties for the protection of national interest, the constitution of Nepal, democracy, and Parliament,” said Debua.
“We are also committed to saving the lives of people from the pandemic and natural calamities. Welfare of the people, strengthening the federal democratic republic and inclusive democracy and ensuring social justice and the rule of law are our common goals.”
What Deuba said resonates well among those who oppose Oli for his series of actions that have been trampling upon the federal system, democracy, constitutional principles and the rule of law.
But there already are questions galore. Many look askance at the alliance led by the former prime ministers who, according to critics, have already been tried and tested in the past. Detractors also doubt if the alliance indeed is for the rule of law, constitutionalism and the system or if they have just banded together to unseat Oli to serve their personal and political interests. There are also questions about the alliance’s longevity.
In a nutshell, this is an alliance formed out of compulsion, said Krishna Khanal, a professor of political science at the Tribhuvan University.
“Dahal is left with no option; he had to find something to lean on to fight against Oli,” Khanal told the Post. Madhav Nepal’s other leg is in the UML, his mother party. The Janata Samajbadi Party is a divided house.”
According to Khanal, the Congress party can lead an agenda-driven movement but its leadership is not ready.
“We can assume some kind of cooperation and collaboration among the constituents of this alliance but for how long it will last is questionable,” said Khanal.
For those following Nepali politics even for the last one decade, it is not very difficult to figure out that all these former prime ministers–or politicians leading various parties–are like chalk and cheese. All of them have had their own fights against each other in the past.
Despite forming an alliance in 2016 to pull the rug from under the carpet of Oli, Deuba and Dahal fell out with each other when the Maoist chair decided to merge his party with the UML.
In September 2015, days after the constitution promulgation Bhattarai severed his ties with Dahal. Both led the “people’s war” together.
Nepal and Khanal sided with Dahal in the then Nepal Communist Party (NCP), formed in May 2018 after the merger between the UML and the Maoist Centre, after Oli drove them into a corner. Nepal and Khanal are not considered adversaries per se, but they come from the same party–the UML.
Ideologically also, these politicians are poles apart.
Oli, however, has brought them together, and the alliance is now even considering continuing the association until elections next year, as the opposition leaders appear confident the House would be restored and snap polls in November this year won’t happen.
“But do you think the Nepali Congress will continue this alliance with other parties and go for elections?” said Khanal.
Congress leaders themselves are not sure for how long this alliance is. After failing to form a government under Article 76 (2) following Oli’s May 10 defeat in the confidence motion, Deuba was under pressure. His bid failed because the Nepal-Khanal faction and the Mahantha Thakur-Rajendra Mahato group of the Janata Samajbadi Party refused to extend support.
When Oli prodded the President to invoke Article 76 (5), Deuba managed to shore up support from the Nepal-Khanal faction too, as 26 of lawmakers provided their signatures backing him for his prime ministerial bid. But President Bidya Devi Bhandari dismissed Deuba’s bid on May 21.
Deuba is also now left with no alternative than to keep the alliance intact, as other parties rallied behind him when he went to the court to demand that the House be restored and he be appointed prime minister. More than Dahal, Bhattarai and Yadav, Deuba’s immediate challenge is to ensure that the Nepal-Khanal group remains with him.
Despite making disparaging remarks against Nepal and Khanal, Oli has not shut the door for them completely. Nor has he fired them from the party.
The Oli camp is well aware of the fact that the opposition alliance’s fate depends on the Nepal-Khanal faction.
A Standing Committee member of the UML, who is close to Oli, said that opposition parties have reached a tentative agreement to forge a pre-election alliance so as to drive a wedge between Nepal and Oli.
“We have information that some leaders within the alliance have divided 100 electoral constituencies for the Congress and the rest 65 for the Maoist Centre, the Nepal faction, the Yadav group and Janamorcha Nepal led by Chitra Bahadur KC,” the member told the Post, requesting anonymity. “We have also heard that Dahal has given words to both Nepal and Yadav that together they can form a new force of like-minded people.”
A “socialist force” has been the constant refrain of Dahal, Bhattarai and Yadav of late, though none has made it yet clear what exactly it would look like.
“Of course we want to pre-empt any possible political accident that may befall our party,” said the member.
On Thursday, at the interaction with the press, Nepal though was critical of Oli, he did leave some room for rapprochement with Oli. “If Oli mends his ways and corrects his mistakes, we must also give him some space… you see Deubaji,” said Nepal, as he appeared to strike a conciliatory note.
Bhattarai was not present at the interaction. Nor was Jhala Nath Khanal because he is currently in India for his treatment.
At present, the Congress appears to be trying to maintain the alliance until the House is restored.
A Congress leader ruled out any pre-poll alliance among the parties.
“There is no understanding or agreement among the parties to hold a pre-poll or post-poll alliance,” said Bishwa Prakash Sharma, spokesperson for the Nepali Congress. “This alliance will surely remain intact until the House is restored. But after that the situation might change. If Deuba becomes prime minister, Dahal and Nepal will definitely have their own agendas to deal with.”
Analysts say those who face a political crisis are Dahal and Nepal rather than Deuba.
An early poll is not something the Congress party is entirely averse to. The Congress party did not wholeheartedly oppose Oli’s December 20 House dissolution also. For the party, which faced a drubbing, snap polls would be godsend. This time, Deuba is vehemently opposed to Oli’s House dissolution because his prime ministerial bid was blocked by the President, and has taken that as a personal affront, insiders in the party say.
Analysts say questions over the alliance members’ commitment to democracy and rule of law are justified because by and large their contributions in destroying the system also cannot be ruled out.
Many have even asked what the alliance’s objective is–unseating Oli or saving democracy.
On Thursday, Dahal made attempts to assuage such concerns, saying the alliance is not just meant to unseat Oli.
“It’s a fight to save democracy,” said Dahal. “We too have made mistakes in the past, but we will move ahead by correcting those.”
Analysts say the question is not just about the alliance’s durability; the major issue is what its long-term goal is when it comes to protecting constitutionalism, bringing the system back on track and upholding the rule of law.
“There is no doubt that these parties in the alliance are trying to come back to power. But is their return to power a solution to the present crisis?” said Daman Nath Dhungana, a former House Speaker and prominent civil society member who has been part of various movements for democracy and rule of law. “The alliance needs to find out why this constitution has become irrelevant within six years of its adoption.”
Dhungana minced no words that the parties in the opposition alliance are equally responsible for bringing the country to such a pass.
“They are trying to extricate the country from a situation but the country is in such a situation also because of them,” Dhungana told the Post. “Oli is largely responsible for creating this mess, but should not the Congress, the Maoist Centre and others admit that they too have played complicit roles?”
What can pose a major challenge to the parties in the alliance is their ideological differences. And the Maoist Centre, in particular, is facing tough questions, as this is the party which once propped up Oli and is now scheming his fall.
“It’s true that we are confronted with questions regarding the future of the alliance, but I can certainly say that this is not a short-term cooperation [among parties],” said Narayan Kaji Shrestha, spokesperson for the Maoist Centre. “This alliance will continue its fight until democracy and constitution are brought back on track.”
Shrestha admits the ideological differences of the parties in the alliance.
“But everyone needs to understand that at this point, we have a common goal–saving democracy and the constitution,” Shrestha told the Post. “It would be wrong to say that we have joined hands just to topple Oli. We have a broader framework.”
But analysts like Khanal and Dhungana are sceptical.
According to Khanal, instead of repeating democracy and constitution, the alliance must be able to say explicitly what remedies it has to bring the country back from the edge of the abyss.
“Most importantly, the Nepali Congress should have been taking the lead in the alliance and it should set the agenda,” said Khanal. “But Dahal seems to be in the driving seat, which is bizarre.”
Dhungana finds yet another thing bizarre that the alliance is often reactive, with no proactive approach to assert its commitment to saving democracy and constitution.
“Once Oli is unseated, Deuba might take over. But is that the solution to all the problems that the country is facing?” said Dhungana. “The alliance must be able to convince people that the change will be for the better, not to start yet another game of shuffling cards.”