UML renews bid to pull ruling coalition down. Will it succeed?The party tries to foment discord in the Congress-Maoist alliance. Madhav Nepal’s prime minister prospects make UML chief jittery.
KP Sharma Oli and Madhav Kumar Nepal are former comrades turned bitter foes. The animosity between them has continued to grow, ever since Nepal broke away from the CPN-UML and formed the CPN (Unified Socialist) over two years ago. For one, Oli is determined to stop Nepal from becoming prime minister.
As per an understanding between Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba and Nepal reached right before the 2022 parliamentary elections and renewed after the formation of the Dahal government late that year, the prime minister’s chair will be rotated between the three leaders in the federal parliament’s current five-year term.
Sources privy to the deal said Nepal will be the country’s chief executive for a year, after Dahal completes his two years in Singha Durbar in December 2024.
The Congress is the largest party in the federal parliament. The UML is a close second while Dahal’s CPN (Maoist Centre) is a distant third, with 32 seats in the House of Representatives. Nepal’s Unified Socialist failed to get the national party status as it could not cross the three percent vote threshold.
For many, the government leadership of Dahal, someone whose party has just a third of the Congress’ strength in the lower house, is already problematic. Nepal, the supposed prime minister in waiting, currently leads a party with 10 MPs.
Leaders of the ruling coalition are confident their alliance will stay intact for five years but the main opposition, UML, appears to be getting desperate to pull the rug from under it. The party has opened lines of communication with both the Congress and the Maoist Centre, UML leaders said.
There has been a palpable sense of unease between the coalition partners on several matters including over arrests of political leaders in corruption and refugee scams. For instance, the Congress party was divided over whether to suspend former home minister Bal Krishna Khand from party roles while he was in police custody following his arrest in the fake Bhutanese refugee scam.
Many of the government’s crackdowns on corruption have fizzled out. Senior leaders of political parties including those from the ruling Maoist Centre and their close relatives were interrogated over the smuggling of gold into the country. But then senior police officers leading the investigation were mysteriously transferred.
Home Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha, who initially appeared determined to crack down on corruption, has supposedly had to pull back due to ‘coalition compulsions’.
After a long time, Shrestha again appeared upbeat on Friday as he made a case against arrested industrialist Arun Chaudhary, a brother of Congress lawmaker and Nepal’s only dollar billionaire Binod Chaudhary.
Shrestha said the country would never change for the better if the government continued to be put under pressure to overlook shady dealings of powerful businesspersons. Congress lawmaker Sunil Sharma had heavily criticised the prime minister and the home minister for Arun’s arrest.
Senior Congress leader Shashank Koirala said in Nawalparasi on Thursday that Prime Minister Dahal’s government has been a total failure and time has come to make Madhav Nepal the prime minister. Koirala went on to say that Dahal would not easily hand over the reins.
A faction in the Congress, led by Shekhar Koirala and General Secretary Gagan Thapa, has been a vocal critic of the Dahal government with Koirala saying that so long as this government stays put, the country’s woes will continue to multiply.
UML’s earlier attempts to break the coalition did not succeed but they did create some mutual suspicion in the coalition.
In the run-up to the January 25 National Assembly elections, Prime Minister Dahal spoke of ‘adjusting’ the UML by giving it some of the 19 seats up for grabs. Dahal’s reported offer of six Assembly seats for the UML made the Congress jittery. An agreement was eventually reached with the coalition and the seat-sharing talks with the UML broke down.
During their meeting on Friday, Oli said he had reached an understanding with Dahal on delivering justice to conflict victims by amending the relevant law.
On Saturday, Oli reportedly told two internal party meetings that the UML would not wait till next elections to get into the government and that Oli was dead against Madhav Nepal as prime minister.
Top UML leaders often say the country’s two largest parties should come together to clean up the political mess and stem the rise of new forces that have emerged as a big challenge for traditional powers.
According to UML and Maoist leaders, the two parties are waiting for an opportunity to strike a new deal. Hence the frequent meetings between Prime Minister Dahal and opposition leader Oli.
“We are aware that some second-rung leaders of the UML and the Maoist Centre are in serious talks,” a Congress leader said. “The recent meetings between Prime Minister Dahal and opposition leader Oli are focused not just on completing the peace process. They also discuss politics.”
The UML and the Maoist Centre formed an electoral alliance ahead of the 2017 general elections. The following year, the two parties united to form the Nepal Communist Party, allegedly at the behest of China, which has a communist rule. Even after the unified party split in 2021 following a Supreme Court ruling, Chinese political leaders have been visiting Kathmandu frequently.
“There is a need for government change as this one has created a lot of chaos, failed to deliver or to tamp down on corruption,” said Pradeep Gyawali, a deputy general secretary of the UML. “We are in talks with both the Congress and the Maoist Centre but our preferred choice [ally] is the Congress.”
Oli told party leaders on Saturday that the UML cannot wait the next four years for the elections and urged them to be ready even for midterm elections.
“Several top Congress leaders are unhappy with the present coalition,” said Gyawali. “If the Congress is ready to leave the present coalition, a new UML-Congress alliance can be formed.”
But this is unlikely to happen soon. Both Dahal and Deuba have publicly vowed to give continuity to the present coalition until the next elections.
“They [UML] are continuously trying to break up the alliance. This is their set policy,” said Jagannath Khatiwada, spokesperson for the Unified Socialist. “Most recently, they tried to create a rift in the coalition during the National Assembly elections but they failed.”
The defeat of Maoist candidate Champa Karki in the Assembly elections in Koshi Province has created a rift between the Congress and the Maoist Centre. Leaders from both parties suspect the UML of fomenting such a rift by encouraging a section of the Congress party to vote against the Maoist Centre candidates.
“In my calculation, the present coalition will stay intact for the time being. But by the time of the local elections [due in the summer of 2027], the UML and the Maoist Centre could come together as the Congress is determined to contest the polls alone. The Maoists then would have no option but to join hands with the UML,” said Khatiwada.
“We have both pro-Congress and pro-Maoist lines in the party,” a UML central committee member said. Gyawali too admitted that the UML and Maoist leaders have been in regular touch.
Congress leaders say they are sure that second-rung UML and Maoist Centre leaders are engaged in closed-door negotiations.
Dahal will face a real test only when he is expected to hand over the government leadership to either Madhav Nepal or to Congress President Deuba, said a Congress central working committee member. “Dahal could ditch the present coalition and join forces with the UML in order to continue as prime minister.”
Oli is bent on stopping Madav Nepal from becoming the prime minister, the UML central committee member said. “Oli will go any length to stop Nepal, including by supporting Dahal’s premiership.”
Oli took a soft tone towards Dahal during the party's meeting on Saturday. “Both of us are trying to understand each other, with the goal of finding a common ground for cooperation,” the UML chief said.
“I have no idea about the discussions between the Congress and the UML. But I do think the UML and the Maoist Centre might come together after some time,” said Minendra Rijal, a Congress leader.
A Maoist Centre leader also agreed that the UML strives to bring down the present coalition. “But that will not happen anytime soon,” said Devendra Poudel, a Maoist secretary.
“Yes, there have been some informal discussions between the UML and the Maoist Centre. But this coalition will remain intact unless the Congress decides to pull out.”