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Amid desire for change, Nepal risks to be stuck in the past

by Simone Galimberti 

Though it was a possibility, few really believed that the chairman of the Maoist party, officially the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center), Pushpa Kamal Dahal, could play the trick and be appointed Prime Minister by the President of Nepal, Bidhya Devi Bhandari.

Yet this was what suddenly, almost out of jolt, happened on a convulse Christmas afternoon, a day that was announced a public holiday even though it was a very normal day for the vast majority of the nepali population.

For weeks, the Moist party has been in consultation with the Nepali Congress led by now-former PM Deuba, and it was almost a foregone conclusion that the two parties would have, in the end, found an agreement.

Having forged an electoral alliance that was built over the last year and a half when, since May 2021, the two parties had led the formation of a multi-party coalition government, no one was really expecting the possibility for Mr Dahal to succeed at being appointed at the highest executive post of the country.

Yet, on the one hand, the insistence of the Maoist leader to get the post of PM for the first two years and, on the other hand, the intransigence of the Congress to not give up the premiership brought to the unexpected outcome of having the Maoist Leader at the helm of the government.

The Congress was rightly claiming for the top position considering the fact that it had won the highest number of seats in the recent general elections held in November and Maoist, had instead performed abysmally.

Political pundits and commentators were expecting a last-minute deal where Mr Dahal’s party would have got the Presidency of the Republic, a ceremonial but at the same time prestigious and, to some extent, a powerful positon that would soon fall vacant.

In exchange, PM Deuba, who had recently been confirmed as Parliamentary Leader of the party and therefore automatically granted a “pole position” to lead the government, would have been appointed as PM for the first two years before allowing Mr Dahal to take over from him.

This was almost a safe bet considering that very few were forecasting the boldness of the Maoist leader to reconcile with his nemesis, former PM KP Sharma Oli, whose party, the United Marxists Leninists, UML, after elections, had the second highest number of seats in the parliament but was surely destined to be in the opposition.

Let’s not forget that both Mr Oli and Mr Dahal were the co-chairs of the now defunct Nepal Communist Party, the result of a merger of the two major leftist parties in the country following the elections in 2017, a development that had ensured Mr Oli to become PM.

What was then described as a “gamechanger” that had secured Mr Oli the first-ever absolute majority in the parliament.

Yet due to internal tensions and disagreements that had turned into personal animosity between the two and following a controversial ruling by the Supreme Court that had annulled the merger of their two parties, Mr Dahal formally distanced himself from Mr Oli and joined forces with the Congress in 2021.

He did so together with former PM Madhav Nepal, another top Communist Party of Nepal (UML) leader who, unable to get along with Mr Oli and his notorious “authoritarian” leadership, decided to split party and, together with the Maoist, enabled a Congress-led government that was in power till now.

As you are still following, you will realize how complex and unstable politics are in Nepal.

Shenanigans after shenanigans, twists after twists, pledges are broken, and coalitions unravel to give power to other political alliances that are driven by a lust for power and greed.

What is surprising is the fact that a new party, Rastriya Swatantra Party, made up of young politically unaffiliated independents led by a former tv journalist, Rabi Lamichhane, who had become popular by making politicians and public officials accountable for their work, also joined the new government.

There were rumours that Mr Lamichhane would have also joined a Congress-led government despite some discontent among its 20 newly elected members of parliaments, all young and accomplished professionals, some of which would have preferred to stay in the opposition and strengthen the newly created party.

Indeed the fact that the RSP is joining the coalition and, with it, the “usual” old way of doing politics is itself baffling and might disappoint many of its young voters that were truly hoping for a break from the past.

Indeed, one of the major outcomes of the election that was held on November 20 was the emergence of a strong desire for change that was manifested with the rejection of many political leaders from the establishment.

Hope was that new parties with more competent and honest members could push the old leaders out of the political equation, but, as we are witnessing, it will still take time for this to happen.

At the end of the day, these new forces could not outdo traditional parties, especially the Congress and the UML while the Maoist had their worst performance ever and were able to save their face thanks only to the coalition agreement with the Congress.

Even Mr Dahal had to take “refuge” in a safer constituency because his own was at risk, and indeed the seat was won by Mr Lamichhane who, ironically, now turned from foe into one of his backers.

It is going to be the third time as a prime minister for Mr Dahal, that is also known by his nom de guerre “Prachanda or the Fierce”, a nickname coined during the civil war his party wedged before joining mainstream politics towards the end of 2006.

The high expectations of those during the elections were claiming for a change in the way politics are run in the country, normally marred by backstage deals, corruption and mismanagement, will be undoubtedly disappointed by the latest developments.

Former PM Oli, as many commentators have already explained in the aftermath of the agreement with Mr Dahal, will be the kingmaker, and he will be able to reap the most out of the deal: after two years, he will probably be again the PM, taking over, as part of the deal, from Mr Dahal.

In addition, Mr Oli, who is famous for his rhetoric and nationalistic tones, will be able to choose the new President of the Republic and probably the Speaker of the House of the Representatives, the most relevant of the two chambers that form the Parliament.

The new government certainly will be closer to China, and rumours, denied by the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu, were circulating that his Charge de’Affaires here were meeting the top leaders of all the major parties.

Knowing how the relationship between new Prime Minister Dahal and Mr Oli degenerated in the past, leading to the collapse of their government and joint party, few expect that this new government will last for long.

Yet it is also not at all granted that the new party of independents led by Mr Lamichhane will stay cohesive and united.

Even in the past, similar experiences of new parties emerging out of frustrations of the common people towards politics ended up breaking up and ultimately collapsing by resembling the old establishment outfits.

There is hope that Congress will now take advantage of this setback and move on with its regeneration and renewal.

It is a process that started a few years ago and culminated with a formal challenge to Mr Deuba for the post of Parliamentary Leader by Gagan Thapa, the young and very popular general secretary who, many predict, is destined to lead the “old grand party” in the years to come.

Meanwhile, the stability of the new government might be well short-lived.

Ten days after the appointment, appointed PM Dahal is going to seek a vote of confidence on 9 January, and despite the negotiations going on, he did not secure yet the support of smaller parties, whose votes are indispensable for him to be confirmed in power.

Amon them, there is also the monarchist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) that, among others, is hoping for a revival of Hinduism as the official state religion.

The party is also bargaining hard to reinstate the birthday of the founder of Nepal as a national public holiday next week, an affront to many who fought for a progressive and more inclusive country and, to varying extents, see the day as a day to celebrate monarchy and the creation of the state through conquer and usurpation.

Meanwhile, Mr Lamichhane was given the powerful role of Home Minister and was also appointed as one of the three Deputy Prime Ministers, a development that made some of his members uncomfortable.

At the same time, Mr Dahal pledged that this time he would be more focused on good governance and service delivery, and he even promised to spend less time giving speeches and futile inaugurations.

This week he also met the top bureaucrats from across the ministries and demanded accountability and results.

Will the new Prime Minister be really serious about solving the many problems people face on the day to day basis?

How long will his government survive? How strong will the influence of Mr Oli be that many believe he is “remote-controlling” the new government?

Expect more twists and turns and the usual shenanigans in the national politics of Nepal in the weeks ahead.

The Author writes on civic engagement, youth development, the SDGs, human rights and regional integration in the context of Asia Pacific. 


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