Dahal in bid to drive a hard bargain as exercise begins for general electionsInsiders say much depends on how Deuba and Maoist chair reach a deal on a number of issues, including seats distribution and power sharing.
On Wednesday, while addressing the newly elected party’s representatives in local units, CPN (Maoist Centre) Pushpa Kamal Dahal made two interesting remarks.
“The people have handed the key to Nepali politics to the Maoist Centre,” said Dahal. The statement stems from the fact that the party has emerged as the third largest force from local elections, after the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML. The election results have instilled hope in the Maoist party that it could maintain the third position in the general elections as well, and in that case, it can play a crucial role in making or breaking governments.
“The Maoist Centre made a lot of effort to bring the Congress to power. But if it also demonstrates arrogance like the UML, it also needs to be cut to size. Let’s hope that situation does not arise,” said Dahal at the same function, hinting at the Congress’ emergence as the largest party from the local polls.
Dahal’s statements come at a time when the ruling alliance is discussing dates for the general elections.
Congress President and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba weathered criticism from within the party to fight local elections under an alliance with the Maoist Centre, as well as the CPN (Unified Socialist), Janata Samajbadi Party and Janamorcha Nepal.
By ensuring a respectable number of positions for the Maoist Centre, Deuba in a way gave Dahal a new lease of political life at a time when his party’s popularity was taking a nosedive. But in doing so, Deuba has invited a source of woes as well.
The Unified Socialist is visibly not happy after the local poll performance and has been accusing the Congress and the Maoist Centre of not being honest.
Amid this, talks of a “left alliance” have surfaced again, causing unease for Deuba, and the Congress.
Dahal on Wednesday, however, reiterated his commitment to the alliance. But with his increased bargaining power, not only the election date but the country’s political course is also likely to be guided by what kind of deal Dahal strikes with—or extracts from—Deuba.
Several Congress leaders the Post spoke to said that Dahal’s recent statements earlier in Parliament and on Wednesday clearly show his heightened political ambitions and that he is going to drive a hard bargain.
The Maoist chair now will bargain on seat-sharing as well as on his prime ministership, according to them.
“Prime Minister Deuba is concerned about a possible left alliance between Oli and Dahal, no matter how far-fetched the idea looks at this time, so he is in favour of holding elections as early as possible,” said a Congress office bearer. “So Deuba and Dahal could reach some kind of tactical deal before the election dates are announced.”
Given the bitterness between Oli and Dahal, a reunion between them though looks unlikely, observers say nothing is impossible in politics.
Dahal fell out with Oli after the latter’s refusal to hand over the government helm.
The two-time prime minister, Dahal still holds ambitions to become prime minister at least one more time.
If the alliance continues, Deuba and Dahal are likely to divide the prime ministerial tenure for two and a half years each.
But the moot question is: who will become prime minister first after the local elections?
And what if Oli offers Dahal the prime minister’s post immediately after the elections?
And some are even speculating Dahal becoming prime minister to lead an election government.
“Deuba is not just a clever but a pragmatic politician, so he might propose Dahal to become the prime minister of the election government,” said Haribol Gajurel, a Maoist Centre leader. “Or else, a deal between the two to split the premiership between themselves is already in place.”
According to ruling party leaders, during a meeting of the coalition partners on Monday, it was Deuba who had proposed holding the elections in mid-November.
“No decision has been taken though regarding election dates,” said Gajurel. “Elections could be pushed to February also.”
Though the constitution says the term of the House of Representatives shall be of five years, it does not say from what date its tenure should be counted—whether from the date of the election, from the date of its meeting or from the date when the Election Commission submitted the list of the elected members, or from the day when lawmakers took the oath.
The first phase of general elections was held on November 26, 2017 and the House convened on March 5, 2018.
“We have not made up our mind yet and the government has also not consulted us because there is enough time to hold the elections,” Chief Election Commissioner Dinesh Thapaliya told the Post. “But the commission is of the view that federal and provincial elections should be held before December 1.”
According to him, due to security reasons, this time also elections are likely in two phases.
“We will ask security agencies whether they are prepared to hold the elections in a single phase,” he told the Post. “If the situation is favourable we can go for a single-phase election.”
Even if the elections are held at the earliest by mid-November, there’s ample time for the UML, whose morale is down after local polls, to make efforts to break the ruling alliance.
Oli, on multiple occasions, has said he can break it in a jiffy, insinuating that the Maoist Centre would walk out of the alliance the moment it is given an offer it cannot refuse, which by and large translates into an offer for Dahal to live in Baluwatar.
“There is no doubt that Dahal will play different cards to increase his bargaining power,” said Gagan Thapa, general secretary of the Nepali Congress. “It is also one hundred percent confirmed that Dahal will stake claim to prime ministership after the elections.”
According to Thapa, local elections have certainly made the Maoist Centre a decisive force in national politics.
“The way he spoke on Wednesday shows that Dahal will play multiple cards that we know. Definitely, they will bargain with us too,” said Thapa. “But as of now, we have not received any proposal from his side with the intention to become prime minister before the elections or after the elections. That, however, is very much expected.”
In 2018, when the UML and the Maoist Centre merged after sweeping the elections, Oli and Dahal were said to have reached a gentlemen’s agreement to lead the government by turns.
Failure to uphold the deal by Oli led to the fall of the party and the government.
This time, according to ruling party leaders, chances of left unity are slim.
“However, some UML leaders including General Secretary Shankar Pokhrel are in talks with some Unified Socialist leaders as per our information and the prime minister is also aware of it,” said a Nepali Congress leader close to Deuba. “But we don’t see much chance of a left alliance.”
Not only the prime minister’s post, Dahal is likely to bargain for more electoral seats with the Congress in the general elections, which is also likely to put Deuba in a tight spot.
Of the 165 constituencies under the direct election system up for grabs, Dahal may demand 40 percent—or 65 seats.
But there are other coalition partners as well.
For the Congress, keeping less than 100 constituencies will, however, not bode well, and insiders say 65 constituencies are likely to be divided among the Maoist Centre and other coalition partners.
A sizeable section in the Congress believes if Deuba and Dahal do not come together, there is always the risk of the alliance breaking down.
Gajurel, the Maoist leader, ruled out an alliance with the UML.
“We have seen how Oli betrayed us. We have a strong feeling that Deuba won’t,” he told the Post.
That is natural. Oli betrayed us but it is our thought that Deuba will not betray,” said Gajurel. “We, however, are completely unaware of what the two leaders have been negotiating.”
On Wednesday also, Dahal told the elected representatives that the current ruling alliance will go beyond the elections and there will be seat-sharing arrangements among the ruling parties for the provincial and federal elections.
According to Congress leaders, all the issues related to election dates, split in the tenure of the premiership and seat-sharing will depend on how Deuba and Dahal reach a deal.
“If we don’t engage the Maoist Centre, it may side with the UML,” said Minendra Rijal, a Congress leader. “We cannot predict what will happen after the elections but prior to the elections, it is very difficult to give our word to Dahal that he will become the prime minister for a certain time.”
According to him, it’s but natural for the Maoist party to keep its options open, including allying with the UML.
“A political understanding between Deuba and Dahal is quite important,” said Rijal. “But I do not think there will be any kind of agreement regarding splitting the premiership tenure between them before the elections.”