Doubtful of alliance, ruling partners seek ‘package deal’ despite Congress’ poll pledgeNo clarity on agreement but insiders say there are calls for power-sharing besides seat distributions before elections.
That the Nepali Congress has decided to go to polls under an alliance and the coalition partners have reciprocated accordingly, even as some of them are exploring a sub-alliance, seat-sharing can be a complex issue.
There are 165 seats in the House of Representatives and 330 seats in seven provincial assemblies up for grabs under the direct election system. With the Congress in a bid to keep 100 constituencies for itself and leave the remaining 65 for the coalition partners to divide, leaders are now trying to reach a “package deal”.
The coalition partners are making a hard bargain for at least 85 seats for them, which will mean the Congress has to cede 20 seats, something, according to insiders, it cannot afford to do.
On Tuesday, CPN (Maoist Centre) chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal held a meeting with CPN (Unified Socialist) chair Madhav Nepal and its senior leader Jhala Nath Khanal as well as a senior communist leader Bamdev Gautam, who has launched a campaign to bring leftist forces together. Senior Maoist leader Narayan Kaji Shrestha was also present. Earlier in the day, Dahal had held talks with his former deputy Baburam Bhattarai to explore the possibility of a “socialist centre” of like-minded forces.
According to a leader present at the meeting, they discussed if the Congress is fully committed to the electoral alliance as it claims.
“There are differences inside the Congress regarding fighting the polls under an alliance. We noticed a section of the Congress objecting to the alliance during local elections,” said the leader. “We discussed the need for holding talks with the Congress seriously regarding its commitment to the alliance. We also need to discuss the possibility of a package deal which will also mean some kind of agreement on power-sharing.”
There is no clarity yet on the package deal though.
Some leaders say the package deal may entail not only seat-sharing for the elections but also power-sharing post elections.
A Congress leader said the discussions on the package deal as of now have been limited to Maoist chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba.
“The issue has not officially made it to ruling parties’ meetings yet,” the Congress leader told the Post. “What we are hearing though is that the package deal could mean sharing of some crucial posts like President, Vice president, prime minister, House Speaker and deputy Speaker and the chair of National Assembly, among others.”
Dahal, who has been strongly batting for going to elections with the current coalition, in a recent interview with Kantipur said that at some point the prime ministership on a rotational basis would be discussed.
But since there are many aspirants for senior government posts in all parties in the coalition, discussions are likely to take place for other positions also, insiders say.
In 2017, the Maoist Centre fought elections under an alliance with the CPN-UML—the parties later merged in May 2018—and the two parties emerged victorious. Dahal had later revealed that there was an understanding with Oli that the latter would hand over the government mantle to him after three years. Oli’s “refusal to abide by the agreement” was the source of infighting in the party, which ultimately broke down in March last year.
“We have learned a lesson from our past decision to go to elections jointly with the UML in 2017. We did not reach a transparent power-sharing deal with the UML,” said Haribol Gajurel, a senior Maoist leader. “If we had made a transparent deal with Oli that he would hand over power to Dahal after three years, such a large party like the Nepal Communist Party would not have imploded.”
The UML and the Maoist Centre had won 81 and 36 seats, respectively, in the lower house, under the first-past-the-post system.
This time there are four parties, if the Rastriya Janamorcha is not counted as an influential force, that will be contesting the elections together as per the understanding in the ruling coalition. This will, according to insiders, will make even power-sharing a difficult issue.
“But if we agree on a package deal, it will further cement the alliance. Such a decision will help pull in votes,” said Gajural. “That said, the package deal has not entered formal meetings. Discussions at some level of the top party leadership have taken place.”
According to Congress leaders, Deuba, the party president, appears flexible about ceding seats for provincial assemblies while keeping 100 seats for the party in the lower house.
Some senior leaders within the alliance like Congress’ Ram Chandra Poudel and Unified Socialist’s Khanal are eying the post of President.
And there are also questions about the role of and post for Madhav Nepal, the Unified Socialist chair.
According to Purna Bahadur Khadka, the Congress vice president, no concrete discussions have been held vis-a-vis power-sharing, while talks on seat-sharing for the upcoming polls are natural.
Congress leaders say if such a proposal lands in the party meeting, Deuba will face a tough time assuaging the concerns of the rival faction.
“The rival camp led by Shekhar Koirala and backed by general secretaries duo Gagan Thapa and Bishwa Prakash Sharma has already been piling pressure on the party president,” said another Congress leader. “If the coalition partners indeed seek a package deal, it would be a tricky issue to deal with.”
Poudel, the senior Congress leader, said that the coalition must stay away from a pre-poll agreement on power-sharing.
“How can we start discussions and reach a decision on presidential and other posts before the elections?” said Poudel.
Poudel is the coordinator of the high-level political coordinating committee of the ruling alliance to assist the government.
But coalition partners believe a package deal on power-sharing is a must.
“A power-sharing deal with the Nepali Congress is necessary as it did not stick to its words in local elections,” said Jagannath Khatiwada, spokesperson for the Unified Socalist. “Not only on seat-sharing arrangements, we need to have a deal on power-sharing and in addition, it would be better if we go to the polls with a single manifesto.”
According to him, if the Congress is considering winning majority seats by fighting elections under the alliance with the Maoist Centre and the Unified Socialist, there is ample room to doubt its intentions.
“We need to seek a commitment from the Congress that there won’t be any betrayal,” said Khatiwada. “A package deal prior to polls would be a better option, definitely.”