Dahal’s instability: His trait or nature of coalition politics?Maoist party’s growing challenges and Dahal’s need to constantly manoeuvre to stay relevant run parallel.
Coalition politics has greatly benefitted Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the incumbent prime minister and chairman of the CPN (Maoist Centre), a party that has been in continuous decline after it emerged victorious in the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections.
The Maoist party’s growing challenges in parliamentary democracy and Dahal’s need to constantly manoeuvre to stay relevant in national politics run parallel.
While his party was placed third in the second CA elected in 2013 and in the 2022 general elections, Dahal became the prime minister again—for a second and third time—making coalition politics his ladder to power.
After the promulgation of the constitution in 2015, Dahal forged a deal with the Nepali Congress and became the country’s chief executive, alternating in the PM’s chair with Sher Bahadur Deuba. Most recently, he ditched the same Deuba, whose Congress party had fought the 2022 elections in an alliance with the Maoists and some other fringe forces.
Making and breaking of electoral and ruling alliances has been Dahal’s survival strategy (potentially developed over time as a rebel leader who waged a deadly insurgency from 1996 to 2006).
The CPN (Maoist Centre) won 220 seats in the 2008 CA elections, while the party was limited to 80 seats in the 2013 CA polls. After the promulgation of the 2015 constitution, Dahal pulled the plug on the CPN-UML government, and unseated KP Sharma Oli as prime minister. After entering a power-sharing deal with Congress President Deuba, Dahal became the prime minister again in August 2016. As agreed, he handed over the premiership to Deuba in May 2017.
Having fought the local level elections in tandem with the Congress, Maoists switched sides during the federal and provincial elections later in 2017. When the UML and the Maoists teamed up, their left alliance won a landslide in the parliamentary elections, grabbing a total of 174 seats in the 275-strong House of Representatives.
In a recent interview with Kantipur Television, Haribol Gajurel, chief political adviser to Prime Minister Dahal, said that while it was easy for the Maoist Centre to forge an electoral alliance with the UML, when it comes to running a government, Congress-Maoist unity is a better option.
“UML is easy for elections because votes transfer well between the two parties. But running a government is more comfortable with Nepali Congress. This is the reality,” said Gajurel.
After the 2017 elections, UML Chairman Oli became the prime minister in February 2018. Oli and Dahal merged their parties to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), building the strongest communist party in Nepal’s contemporary history. As Oli was about to complete a year in office, the bonhomie between Oli and Dahal started to sour.
As the tide in the NCP turned against Oli, Dahal and some other major leaders started levelling several charges against Oli and seeking his resignation as prime minister. Oli did not budge at once but with the support of other powerful comrades like Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal, Dahal continued to up the ante against Oli. Finally, the tussle led to the House dissolution.
Oli dissolved the House of Representatives in December 2020, in a pre-emptive move to buy time to regain his footing in the party. Oli’s decision, deemed illegal by the Supreme Court, strained his political and personal relations with Dahal. As the two camps in the ruling communist party drifted further apart, Oli in May 2021 not only dissolved the House but also declared snap elections for November 12 and 19 that year.
Oli’s second controversial move followed the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the merger between the UML and the Maoist Centre, citing another politician’s proprietorship of the name Nepal Communist Party. To many, that verdict favoured Oli, at a time when he was struggling to hold the fractured NCP together.
Not by design this time, Oli’s second House dissolution of May 2021 brought Deuba and Dahal together again even though Deuba was unsure of leading the new government with his party’s limited parliamentary size. But Oli’s political adventurism and splits in the communist party led Deuba to a fourth premiership in July, 2021.
Both Deuba and Dahal, aided by three other parties, formed the government and decided to go to elections together. This time, Dahal stood with Deuba in the local, federal and provincial elections.
Despite their unhappiness with traditional Congress backers who did not vote for the communists in expected numbers in the local level elections, coalition partners Maoist Centre and the newly formed CPN (Unified Socialist) decided to continue their alliance with the Congress for the federal and provincial elections held on November 20 last year.
In an unsatisfactory outcome for the alliance, the Congress emerged as the largest party and Dahal’s CPN (Maoist Centre) became a distant third force, much smaller than Oli’s UML party.
When the deadline to form a new government approached, a crack appeared between Deuba and Dahal, with the former declining to make Dahal the prime minister in the first half of the five-year term. This at a time when Dahal had made becoming prime minister at the first go his bottom line. The UML, well aware of Dahal’s intentions, lured the Maoist chairman to ditch the Congress and forge new unity for his Baluwatar bid.
Oli, who was waiting for the Congress-Maoist bond to break, wasted no time to make Dahal the prime minister on December 25. This journey of Dahal, however, doesn’t seem to be going too far. In barely five weeks, trouble in the ruling coalition is growing.
Rabi Lamichhane, the media person-turned-politician who led his new Rastriya Swatantra Party to an impressive win in the parliamentary elections and became a deputy PM and home minister, lost the position after the court annulled his House membership in a case of dual citizenship. While Lamichhane reclaimed his Nepali citizenship that he had relinquished in favour of American citizenship in 2014 and returned to the party chair, Dahal is reluctant to reappoint him the home minister while he’s no longer an MP and could be tried in court over possession of dual passports.
The greater issue between Oli and Dahal is candidacy for the upcoming presidential election. In exchange for becoming prime minister, Dahal is believed to have promised the UML presidency too, besides the Speaker position won by a UML member. But then there is the Congress in the picture now.
After the largest party extended a vote of confidence to Dahal on January 10 raising the agenda of national consensus, the Maoists seemed obliged to accommodate the Congress in power-sharing. Ahead of the March 9 presidential election, a crisis of confidence is emerging between Dahal and Oli, party leaders say.
“Impatience and unpredictability are in Dahal’s nature but he is also trying to manage the differences between the parties,” said senior Nepali Congress leader Shekhar Koirala, who has engaged with Dahal since 2005. After signing a 12-point agreement that year, the insurgent Maoists came above ground and Koirala’s role was crucial at that juncture.
“It’s a fact that he feels more comfortable working with the Nepali Congress. Dahal feels uncomfortable with the UML—this is our experience. Even now, he feels more comfortable with us than the UML,” said Koirala.
The Maoist Centre decided on Saturday that it would uphold national consensus in the presidential elections, if possible, or join hands with like-minded political parties to that end.
“We have decided to stand in favour of national consensus during the election of the President. As the Nepali Congress has extended its vote to Prime Minister Dahal’s government, it is our duty to show confidence in the Congress,” Maoist Centre Secretary Devendra Poudel said after the party’s Standing Committee meeting.
Though some political experts believe that most Nepali leaders do not follow the coalition culture, they doubt Dahal and his party more. This view has political backers too.
Presenting a political document to the party’s central committee on Saturday, Unified Socialist Chairman Madhav Kumar Nepal portrayed the Maoist Centre as an “indecisive” political force.
“Its class is not defined. The party came to open politics after signing the peace process but it has been mired in power after a prolonged peace process,” Nepal observed.
“It is committed to the constitution and democracy but as it is fixated on power, it can take just about any step to get it,” Nepal said of the Maoist party.
The diplomatic community in Kathmandu also sees Dahal as an unpredictable and unstable politician who always pursues power and wants to be at the centre of national politics.
“Election after election, I see the downfall of Dahal. So the question of survival is very important for him,” said Lokraj Baral, a professor of political science. Earlier Oli and Deuba failed to honour their commitments given to Dahal, a reason why he has become unstable, said Baral.
More than the Congress and the UML, the Maoists are more insecure about their survival. “As the very survival of the Maoist party is on the line, Dahal has become desperate and impatient,” said Baral.
But a Maoist leader said that because of his flexible character in politics and readiness to join forces with any party irrespective of their ideology, Dahal is one of the most dynamic leaders in contemporary Nepali politics.
“There are reasons why we decided to join hands with Oli in 2017 and there are also reasons why we decided to unseat him. People are fully aware of our compulsions,” said the Maoist standing committee member. “Dahal is again trying his best to forge national consensus at a time when the country is reeling under several external and internal challenges including in economy and service delivery.”
The leader stressed that for a prime minister in such a fluid situation, there is no alternative to national consensus. “If the idea of national consensus is bad and Dahal is taking a wrong path, then so be it.”
Khagendra Prasai, who teaches political philosophy at the Open University Nepal, says all top Nepali leaders are unstable. “Not only Dahal, no one is stable in alliance politics,” he said.
“This is also a question over Oli and Deuba. Why could Oli not save the alliance with Dahal? What forced Deuba to alienate Dahal [just weeks ago]?” Prasai wondered. “Normally, when parties contest elections under the banner of an alliance, they form the government together. But that is not happening here. And so we cannot single out Dahal for criticism.”