All options open as new government deadline loomsDeuba firm on continuing as prime minister, Dahal wants to dethrone him. Oli seeks to drive a wedge between them.
With just two days before the expiry of the deadline given by President Bidya Devi Bhandari to the political parties to claim government leadership, the Nepali Congress-led ruling coalition has intensified negotiations to choose its prime ministerial candidate.
As the second-largest party, the CPN-UML, which is outside the coalition, has also been making overtures to the coalition members including the Congress and the CPN (Moaist Centre), coalition leaders are under pressure to strike a power-sharing deal among themselves.
On Friday evening, Prime Minister and Congress chief Sher Bahadur Deuba held talks with Maoist Centre chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal for around two and a half hours, but they could not come to an agreement. Although the two have agreed to lead the post-election government by turns, each wants to be prime minister in the first half of the five-year term.
“They plan to meet again tomorrow,” according to Bhanu Deuba, an aide to the prime minister.
At the meeting, Deuba told Dahal that he is under immense pressure from the Congress to continue as prime minister for the next two years, according to a leader privy to the meeting. Deuba also promised to hand over the premiership to Dahal after that, but Dahal is not convinced, the leader said.
Meanwhile, leaders involved in bilateral and multilateral negotiations told the Post that the coalition is currently discussing a pair of options on a new government.
One option is forming a government under Deuba and appointing someone recommended by the Maoist Centre as President. Besides the presidency, the Maoist Centre will also be offered key ministries including home, energy and tourism.
But Dahal has been insisting that he should get the prime ministership in the first half of the five-year term and has proposed CPN (Unified Socialist) chief Madhav Kumar Nepal as new President.
Another option is to make Dahal new prime minister and appoint Congress leader Ram Chandra Paudel as President, and another Congress leader Purna Bahadur Khadka as Speaker. “Besides these two options we have also begun talks with UML leaders,” the Congress leader said.
Another Congress leader confirmed that UML chairman KP Oli phoned Prime Minister Deuba on Friday to discuss possible collaboration.
The UML, which is in talks with both the Congress and the Maoist Centre, is also weighing its alternatives. “If the ruling coalition fails to produce a candidate for prime minister by Sunday, only then do we enter the scene,” a UML leader said.
If Dahal keeps insisting on becoming prime minister first then the Congress will try to form new government with the support of the Unified Socialist, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party, the Janamat Party and the Janamukti Party, a senior Congress leader said.
Dahal has laid claim to the first half of the five-year term, arguing Deuba has already led the government after they formed the alliance last year and he would get another chance later.
Meanwhile, Dahal is also in constant touch with the UML, which has already agreed to support his bid for prime ministership. But the UML leaders want Dahal to first break ties with the Congress-led coalition.
On Thursday evening, Dahal along with Unified Socialist chair Nepal had met Deuba at Baluwatar. During the meeting Dahal asked Deuba to allow him to lead the government for the first two and a half years. Nepal reportedly favoured Dahal’s proposal.
Also, during another meeting with Congress leaders Purna Bahadur Khadka, Krishna Sitaula and Gyanendra Karki on Thursday evening, Nepal said he would have no objection if Dahal headed the government during the first half of the new parliament’s term.
Leaders close to Nepal said he wants Deuba to hand over the government’s helm to Dahal as he fears Dahal would join hands with the UML to guarantee prime ministership, which would not be salubrious for his party.
UML leaders have already told Dahal that they won’t accept the Unified Socialist as a coalition partner. The Nepal-led party has also clarified that it will not join hands with the UML even if Dahal decides to go to power with UML’s backing.
“Deuba was non-committal when Dahal sought his backing for his prime ministerial bid,” said Ramesh Malla, chief personal secretary to Dahal, after the meeting on Thursday.
As negotiations for government formation gathered momentum with all the parties electing their parliamentary party leaders, Congress leader Prakash Man Singh met Dahal earlier on Friday asking the latter to support Deuba’s bid for prime minister.
“Dahal turned down Singh’s proposal. Instead he urged Congress to support his own bid,” UP Lamichhane, press coordinator to Singh, told the Post. “Singh has already conveyed the message to Prime Minister Deuba.”
The leaders are trying to forge an agreement in a package for 35 constitutional positions including the President, Vice-President, Speaker, Deputy Speaker, Chairman of the National Assembly, and chief ministers of the seven provinces.
Dahal doesn’t much trust Oli and wants to give continuity to the existing coalition, but he also desperately wants to lead the government, even by joining hands with Oli and the UML.
“If the Congress refuses to accept him as the prime minister first, Dahal will for sure defect to the UML camp,” said a deputy general secretary of the Maoist Centre. “Some leaders from our party are in constant touch with UML leaders and they are ready to support Dahal for the first half of the five-year term.”
Oli and Dahal had brief discussions at two public functions—first at the President’s Office on Wednesday, and again at an event organised by the Federal Parliament after the swearing-in of newly elected lawmakers on Thursday.
The UML is bent on breaking the ruling coalition as the party will have to remain out of power for at least two years if the ruling coalition gets continuity (no-confidence motion cannot be brought for the first two years of government formation), and the second-largest party is thus making generous offers to Maoist Centre leaders. "We have entrusted our party chair to deal with other parties on government formation," said Subas Nembang, vice-chair of the UML. “Other leaders are also holding discussions with their Maoist Centre counterparts for a possible alliance."
Meanwhile, political leaders also confided with the Post that after India and the United States, China is also increasingly interested in ongoing negotiations for new government.
Chargé d'Affaires at the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu Wang Xin met with Oli and Chairman of the Janata Samajbadi Party Upendra Yadav on Thursday and with Dahal on Friday morning, according to two different sources. “China’s interest is well known,” a UML leader said, “they are in favour of a leftist government.”