April 2023

Collapsing coalitions

Over four months since the election, Nepal’s government is yet to start functioning.  Sudha Ramachandran  offers a glimpse into the nation’s turbulent political landscape

Less than three months after the Nepali Congress was jilted at the altar of government formation by its election ally, the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC), it has joined the Dahal government.

On March 20, the NC supported Prime Minister Dahal in the trust vote in parliament. As of March 24, leaders of the parties that have joined the Dahal government were still wrangling over the distribution of portfolios.

Political instability is a constant in Nepal. Yet even by Nepal’s standards, the turbulence it has witnessed in recent months has been unprecedented, with politicians and parties switching partners and alliances with shocking frequency.

The country voted in general elections in November 2022. The mandate was fractured and the NC, which led the previous government, won 89 seats to emerge as the largest party in the 275-member House of Representatives. It quickly got down to engaging other parties on the question of government formation.

During these talks, Dahal reportedly insisted on being appointed as prime minister, which was unacceptable to the NC. Apparently, the two parties had, in a pre-election understanding, agreed that Dahal would head the new government. But following the CPN-MC’s poor performance in the general election – it won just 32 seats – the NC believed that it, not the CPN-MC, deserved to lead the government.

Rabi Lamichhane
CONTROVERSY: Former Deputy PM and Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane was embroiled in a dispute over his citizenship

Just hours ahead of the 5pm deadline on December 25 for government formation, Dahal dumped the NC and joined hands with his arch-rival Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, a former prime minister and leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML).

Oli agreed to support a Dahal-led government on the condition that his candidates would be appointed to key posts, including the presidency.

Dahal decided to keep the home ministry portfolio for himself

On December 26, Dahal was sworn in as prime minister at the head of a government that included, in addition to his own party, the CPN-MC, members of the CPN-UML, the Rastriya Swatantra Party, Rastriya Prajatantra Party, Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP), Janamat Party, Nagarik Unmukti Party and independents.

Then, on January 10 this year, Dahal faced a trust vote, which he won with a thumping majority, as even the NC voted to support him.

However, the motley coalition soon began to unravel.

Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane, who heads the RSP, was embroiled in a controversy over his citizenship and was stripped of his posts. When he subsequently reacquired his Nepali citizenship, Dahal refused to reappoint him, deciding to keep the home ministry portfolio for himself. This prompted the RSP to leave the government.

Meanwhile, differences between Dahal and Oli over the ruling coalition’s candidate for the presidential elections erupted.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

Oli will wait and watch for an opportunity to divide the ruling coalition

Under the power-sharing agreement that propelled him to the premiership in December 2022, Dahal had agreed to support the CPN-UML’s presidential candidate. But, once safely ensconced in the prime minister’s seat, Dahal reneged and backed the NC’s candidate.

It resulted in the CPN-UML withdrawing its support for his government.

Two months after the swearing-in of the Dahal government with CPN-UML support, the ruling coalition was in tatters. Oli, Dahal’s friend-turned-foe-turned-friend again, was once more his arch-enemy.

It was amid this crisis that Nepal’s presidential election was held on March 9 and the NC’s candidate, Ram Chandra Paudel, coasted to victory with the support of eight parties, including the NC and the CPN-MC. On March 17, the eight parties elected JSP leader Ramsahay Yadav as vice-president.

While there is a semblance of political calm, good governance is yet to happen. It is over four months since the Nepali people cast their votes but the government is yet to begin functioning.

Oli, who was hoping to control the new government by placing his appointees in all the key posts, must be a disappointed man. But he is not one to mope and do nothing.

Ram Chandra Paudel, third President of Nepal
NC candidate Ram Chandra Poudel triumphed in Nepal’s March 9 presidential election. with the support of 8 parties

He will wait and watch for an opportunity to divide the ruling coalition. He and Dahal might have crossed swords recently over the presidential election but Oli understands Dahal well. As part of the communist coalition government that ruled Nepal between 2018 and 2021, he knows that Dahal is an opportunistic politician, who will make and break alliances to access or remain in power

Simultaneously, Oli and the CPN-UML can be expected to hit the streets in the coming months. He will mobilise the masses against the government on issues such as rising prices, and his politics will no doubt take an anti-India Nepali nationalist turn yet again. In 2021, for instance, Oli, then prime minister, repeatedly baited India on the two countries’ territorial dispute to stir Nepali nationalist sentiment and mobilise the masses in his support.

It is important, therefore, that Prime Minister Dahal settles down quickly to get his government to deliver. Otherwise, it will be Oli who sets the agenda.

Dr Sudha Ramachandran is a Bengaluru-based independent analyst who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be contacted at Sudha.ramachandran@live.in