Congress strategy: Party-proposed head of state. If that fails, stop UML candidatePrime minister is also in consultations with other parties who want to prevent UML’s candidate in presidential elections.
The Nepali Congress, encouraged by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s proposal of electing the new President based on ‘national consensus’, has made a two-pronged strategy for the March 9 vote.
After the Congress extended its vote of trust to Dahal on January 10, he floated the “consensus” idea.
Congress leaders see their early success in the ‘suspicion and doubt’ that they have been able to sow in relations between Prime Minister Dahal and CPN-UML Chairman KP Sharma Oli, who had wooed the Maoist Centre away from its electoral alliance with the Congress with the offer of premiership to Dahal.
At least four Nepali Congress leaders told the Post that their focus is now on the presidential election and there is no division in the party. “Our strategy now is clear,” one of them said. “Either our candidate should win or at least we will block the UML’s candidate at any cost from being elected President.”
Prime Minister Dahal is also frequently meeting with Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba. On Friday evening, the two leaders had a meeting at Baluwatar where they discussed the presidential elections.
Dahal is also meeting with leaders from both camps of the Congress—led by Deuba and Shekhar Koirala. Deuba has entrusted party Vice President Purna Bahadur Khadka with liaisoning with Dahal. But Dahal is also meeting with other key Congress leaders like Koirala, Krishna Prasad Sitaula, and General Secretary Gagan Thapa. Thapa has already met Dahal twice and discussed their moves before the elections, with the major parties including the UML making it a prestige issue.
In his brief comment, Thapa said he was excited after meeting with Dahal and talks had been positive so far. The possible presidential candidates from Congress are Ram Chandra Poudel and Sitaula.
The UML has its own candidates like Ishwar Pokhrel, Guru Baral, Subas Nembang and Bishnu Rimal. Names of CPN (Unified Socialist) Chairman Madhav Kumar Nepal, former prime minister Baburam Bhattarai, Maoist leader Amik Sherchan, former speaker Damannath Dhungana and former chief justice Kalyan Shrestha have also come up as possible candidates for the top post.
Dahal is more cautious about the candidates proposed by UML chief Oli due to the role played by incumbent President Bidya Devi Bhandari who openly supported the political line of UML in her decisions, said a Maoist leader. Another worrying factor for other parties is the concentration of power in UML when all major constitutional posts like President, prime minister (after two-and-a-half years it is the UML’s turn to lead the government), Speaker and majority of provincial governments are held by one party. They fear UML’s dominance in national politics.
“That is why the prime minister is giving space for the Nepali Congress and engaging with Congress leaders openly. This is an indirect message to the UML too,” the Maoist leader said. “We are again going to be the force that determines who will be the President. We are talking about national consensus involving the UML too. There is no intention to keep the UML out of the consensus president agenda.”
Besides Nepali Congress, CPN (Unified Socialist) and Janata Samajbadi Party may go for preventing UML’s candidate from becoming the president again. Attempts are also underway to rope in other parties to prevent the UML’s candidate from becoming the president.
Growing mistrust between Dahal and the UML is the first step for Congress leaders towards creating more cracks in the ruling coalition, as it is already fractured by the exit of Rabi Lamichhane’s Rastriya Swatantra Party from the government and the dissatisfaction among CK Raut’s Janamat Party, emerging power of the west Nagarik Unmukti Party and Upendra Yadav’s Janata Samajbadi Party. These forces backed Dahal when he was appointed prime minister but have had troubles in becoming parts of the government.
“In order to prevent our candidate from winning the presidential election, the Congress launched the debate of national consensus,” said Prithvi Subba Gurung, a UML deputy general secretary. “Suspicions are growing whether the Maoist Centre would vote for the UML’s candidate in the president’s elections.”
In the power-sharing deal reached before prime minister election, Dahal is said to have agreed to elect the UML’s candidate as President.
The prime minister is also in consultations with other parties who want to prevent the UML’s candidate in presidential elections so as to pressure Oli to accept a non-UML individual as President.
Citing the December 25 agreement, the UML is also mounting pressure on Dahal to accept its candidate for President. But Dahal’s argument is that since the Congress gave him the confidence vote, it was his duty to accommodate the largest party in the process to elect the head of state.
Congress leaders argue that they weren’t the first to hit at the foundation of the seven-party ruling coalition.
“It was Dahal who reached the residence of our president while seeking the vote of confidence because he wanted to keep a check on an overpowering UML while leading the government,” a Nepali Congress leader said. “As per the request of the prime minister and in order to create an environment of national consensus, we decided to extend the vote to Dahal.”
A day before the floor test on January 10, Dahal had reached Deuba’s residence and sought the Congress’ support to his government. Dahal won an unprecedented backing of House members.
“We are 100 percent confident that the next president would be from the Nepali Congress and we are creating a positive environment for that,” said Bishwa Prakash Sharma, a Congress general secretary. “So far so good.”
Sharma went on, “We have clear Plan ‘A’ and Plan ‘B’. Our first priority is to get our candidate elected. Otherwise, we will stop the candidate proposed by the UML.”
Sharma, however, admitted that if Oli proposes someone with a neutral image, Mahantha Thakur for instance, that would confuse the Congress. “In that case, we need to have a Plan ‘C’,” he said.