Can Gagan Thapa beat Deuba in prime minister race?Nepali Congress chief remains favourite as immediate change in parliamentary party leadership looks unlikely.
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who also heads the present ruling alliance of four political parties, has been busy cobbling together a broader coalition to form a new government with a clear majority in the soon-to-be-formed parliament.
For that, he is negotiating with leaders from various other political parties as the current coalition is two seats short of a simple majority, which is essential to form a new government.
A lawmaker aspiring to become prime minister must secure 138 votes in the 275-member House of Representatives to bag the coveted post. But the Nepali Congress-led alliance only has 136 seats. Deuba, therefore, has been holding talks with the likes of the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP), the Janamat Party and the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party (LSP) in order to achieve a comfortable majority.
The ruling coalition has decided to remain intact to form the next government and the CPN (Maoist Center) chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who had earlier claimed that he be allowed to head the government in the first half of the five-year term, seems to have softened his claim.
As the chief of the largest party and the leader of the ruling coalition, Deuba, who has already become prime minister five times, is once more poised to head the government. But before that, he needs to be elected the parliamentary party leader of his own party; some Congress leaders have announced their intent to challenge him there.
During the election campaign, at least half a dozen senior Congress leaders said they would fight for the prime ministerial position, once they were elected lawmakers.
Besides Deuba, senior leader Ram Chandra Paudel, General Secretary Gagan Thapa, and other leaders such as Shekhar Koirala, Shashank Koirala and Prakash Man Singh had all staked their claim during electioneering.
Shashank Koirala, who had been sticking to his claim until a few days ago, said in a recent interview that he had changed his mind and was now interested in working as a minister for agriculture.
As per the Congress party statute, only the parliamentary party leader can become the prime minister.
“The negotiations among coalition partners on the next government will take a concrete shape only after the Congress elects its parliamentary party leader,” Himalal Puri of the Rastriya Janamoracha, one of the coalition partners, told the Post. “The election of the Congress parliamentary party leader will clarify many things.”
General Secretary Thapa in particular seems to be a serious challenger to Deuba.
Well before the November 20 elections, Thapa had projected himself as a prime minister candidate. The strategy worked for Thapa and he won his election from Kathmandu-4 with a huge margin. Another general secretary of the party, Bishwa Prakash Sharma, has declared that he would not only support Thapa for the post, he would be the one to propose Thapa’s name as the party’s parliamentary party leader. Observers believe that the partnership between the two young leaders, who were popularly elected party general secretaries last year, may build pressure on Deuba.
Ram Chandra Poudel and Prakash Man Singh are the two other aspirants in the Congress for the post. Both had backed Deuba when the election of party president was in the final stage. However, party leaders claim neither Poudel or Singh have a grip on the party’s rank and file.
Party spokesperson and Congress leader, Prakash Sharan Mahat, said there is no alternative to Deuba as Congress parliamentary party leader and as a contender for the office of the prime minister.
“Deuba will undoubtedly be elected as parliamentary party leader to be our party’s prime minister candidate,” Mahat told the Post.
Another candidate who could take on Deuba for the position of party leader in parliament and prime ministership is Shekhar Koirala. At the party's general convention last year, Deuba defeated Koirala to be elected party president. However, Koirala, who had projected himself as a prime ministerial candidate prior to the elections, has been silent on the matter after the election results. While Koirala is mum, Thapa—who was elected as general secretary from the Koirala camp at the party’s general convention last year—is said to be working to contest parliamentary party leadership.
Some suspect Koirala’s silence may dent Thapa's ambitions. However, leaders close to Thapa claimed that he will finally get Koirala’s support.
Multiple Congress leaders who are closely following the developments concurred that there is a high chance of Koirala and Thapa working together in the contest for parliamentary party leader.
“Thapa is in constant touch with Koirala and they will collaborate,” Puranjan Acharya, a Koirala confidante, told the Post.
The two leaders met in person also on Friday, according to a central committee member close to Thapa.
However, some party leaders also claimed that Koirala may hesitate to propose Thapa’s name for parliamentary party leadership fearing the creation of an alternative power centre in his faction. “The party already has two power centres, one led by Deuba and another by Koirala. If Thapa contests parliamentary party leadership with Koirala’s backing, the party will have another power centre, which might be against Koirala’s interest,” said a Congress leader closely following developments in the higher echelons of the party.
However, Thapa is not only in contact with Koirala, he is also in dialogue with Poudel and other senior party leaders with whom he used to be close during the 14th general convention.
Except for another general secretary, Sharma, no other senior leader has openly lent support for Thapa’s bid for parliamentary party leader.
Deuba has an advantage in terms of putting together the required number of lawmakers needed to be elected parliamentary party leader. While the Deuba camp is unified, the rival side is divided. Leaders close to the Congress believe that Deuba would exert a strong hold over the parliamentary party because his team held sway in the selection of both first-past-the-post and proportional representation candidates in the last month’s elections.
If Koirala and Thapa join hands in the election for parliamentary party leadership, they may get the support of around 30 of 89 members of parliament, said a party insider. “But if Thapa fails to get Koirala’s backing, he definitely will be a weak opponent for Deuba,” the insider claims.
However, a central committee member close to Thapa denied that he would be a weak candidate. “Currently, we can’t give the exact number of MPs on our side as our team has equal prospects of getting support from the opposite camp,” he said.
Political observers think Thapa is well aware that he has only a slim chance of winning parliamentary party leadership and that by declaring his candidacy, he only intends to project himself as the party’s future leader. They said as much, citing the strategy experimented by Thapa at the party’s 13th general convention.
“At the convention, Thapa presented himself as a candidate for general secretary when he knew he couldn’t win the race. What he was doing was paving a path for the 14th general convention,” a Congress leader who did not want to be identified, told the Post. “His preparations in fighting for the parliamentary party leadership this time reflects a similar strategy.”
However, a close aide of Thapa, Pratap Poudel, rubbished the claims and said: “Thapa contesting parliamentary party leadership is not just about projecting himself as a future leader. The election has given a clear mandate for leadership change and the Congress has to respect the mandate by changing the party’s leadership in the parliament.”