GLOBALIST | 5 AUGUST, 2019
Despite Squabbles Nepal Prefers the Coalition Way
Oli and Dahal
Intra Party and inter party squabbles have become an everyday occurrence in Nepal. Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli is charged by his own party members and others of displaying an authoritative arrogance and taking important policy decision without consultation.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the erstwhile head of the Maoist Centre, has been reminding the public-and Oli- about the agreement for a rotational prime ministership during the 5 years of the government, which they had signed when the United Marxist Leninist Party of Mr. Oli and the Maoist Centre had come together to form the government under the umbrella of the newly formed Nepal Communist Party.
The UML and the Maoists are also each determined that the public face of the Nepal Communist Party should reflect their different ideologies. The UML wants ‘people’s multiparty democracy’ to be the declared ideology while the Maoists have been arguing that the formulation should be ‘21st-century people’s democracy and Maoism’. which had been their election platform.
Both leaders, while seeking to display a constructive relationship in public, have been busy undercutting each other and trying to woo each others supporters. The other meaningful political formations, like the Naya Shakti of former Dahal companion and Prime Minister Bhattarai and the various groupings claiming to represent the interests of the Madhesi people, have been busy manufacturing alliances and setting up new formations to ensure that they have a say in the exercise of power. The resulting adverse impact on effective governance seems to be of no relevance.
In 2017 the Maoist Centre and the CPN-UML had fought the elections together dominating Parliament as the first and second largest parties. The two parties had announced a merger under the name of the Nepal Communist Party. But in just over a year differences between the leaders emerged and a political document presented by the two co-chairmen of the new party in December 2018 had come under severe criticism.
The Maoists were irritated by the unified party adopting the UML’s election symbol, the sun, and the former CPN-UML’s ‘people’s multiparty democracy’ slogan instead of the former Maoist party’s ‘21st-century people’s democracy and Maoism’ one.
The nine-member secretariat, the party’s highest executive body, had only three Maoist members—Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Ram Bahadur Thapa and Narayan Kaji Shrestha—while the 45-member standing committee included only 19 Maoists. The Maoists were chagrined by the fact that the leaderships of all party committees, departments and sister wings had gone largely to former UML leaders and all major departments, including Finance, Organisation and Foreign Affairs were under former UML leaders.
Former members of the Maoist Young Communist League had protested the structure of the new National Youth Association Nepal stating that they had only agreed to retaining the name and flag of the former UML’s youth wing on the condition that all central positions be shared equally between the two former parties and this had not happened.
Reported differences between the two leaders had impacted on the party members and there were even reports at one juncture that the NCP could split.
In December 2018 the two leaders had presented a paper to the Standing Committee members of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) outlining the performance of the government. The paper was harshly criticized by senior members like Bamdev Gautam who presented a separate paper and Oli’s old rival Madhav Nepal. Leaders of the party warned Oli and Dahal that the government would head for disaster if the party did not take corrective action. Most of them said that the joint document was not political as it only defended the activities of the government.
There was also dismay at the failure of the government to take effective action to activate various constitutional commissions that had been set up. They were given the mandate to identify areas of necessary policy, legal and institutional reforms and make recommendations to the government. The new constitution promulgated in September 2015 envisioned formation of as many as seven commissions to ensure the rights of the marginalised and underprivileged communities including the National Adibasi Janajati Commission, National Women’s Commission and National Dalit Commission, Madhesi; Muslim; Tharu; and Inclusion commissions .
But there had been long delays in appointing the chairpersons and office bearers to these commissions and in providing resources, infrastructure etc. to get them functioning. Only in March 2019 were five chairpersons sworn in but the National Women’s Commission and National Dalit Commission as well as the National Adibasi Janajati Commission, were still without office bearers.
Some leaders of the two constituents of the NCP were also unhappy at the manner in which various agreements and deals had been reached with politicians like C.K. Raut and ..Chand. C.K. Raut had had led a “Free Madhes” campaign and was released by the Supreme Court only in March 2019.
The government signed an 11 point deal with him the day after he was released under which Raut committed to honour the constitution and sovereignty, integrity and dignity of Nepal. But the deal surprised the public and Raut’s own party the Alliance for Independent Madhes. It also became controversial as it contained the phrase "jana abhimat", which many, including Raut's supporters, translated as referendum though the government denied that that was the intent of the phrase.
There was disquiet also about the government arriving at an arrangement with Netra Bikram Chand. He had been a Maoist and then deserted Dahal and joined forces with Mohan Baidya in 2012. Subsequently he left Baidya and formed his own Communist Party of Nepal. Chand and his outfit had been accused by the government for multiple explosions that took place in Kathmandu. On March 12, 2019 the government designated Chand’s party as a criminal outfit and arrested scores of his supporters while killing at least eight of them. The government had faced criticism for declaring the Communist Party of Nepal a criminal enterprise with some analysts stating that the CPN was a political force and had not declared war against the state. They also said that there was no specific law to control “criminal and destructive activities” of an outfit. Just weeks later Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli said the Netra Bikram Chand-led party would join mainstream politics within a month. Chand had put forward certain demands which included an official letter of invitation from the government, lifting of the ban imposed on its activities; and the release all the cadres and leaders of the party. A section of leaders in the ruling party had not wanted talks with Chand if he demanded a role in the NCP Secretariat and portfolios in the government as acceptance of his demands could impact on their own prospects.
There was similar concern expressed by Maoist circles when the NCP gave prominent positions in the government and in the provinces to the Ram Bahadur Thapa faction, which had joined the Maoist Centre after deserting the group led by Mohan Baidya. One of the senior-most leaders of the Maoist insurgents during the ‘people’s war’--which ended in 2006--Thapa had always been at the crucial decision-making level in the CPN (Maoist Centre) and also in the new party. With most of Thapa’s supporters receiving the benefits--both in the government and the unified party--other leaders of the former Maoist faction had begun to express discontent within the NCP. In the House of Representatives, Dev Prasad Gurung of the Thapa faction was the chief whip of the Nepal Communist Party while the Home Portfolio was also with one of Thapa’s representatives.
Prime Minister Oli had taken a number of decisions since coming to power that were deemed to be representative of his desire to control all institutions and minimize criticism of his government. A series of measures to control the media, social media, universities, imports, and even the national human rights commission had been initiated. Prime Minister Oli had taken a number of decisions since coming to power that were deemed to be representative of his desire to control all institutions and minimize criticism of his government. Ministers from the Maoist camp are uneasy with Oli’s intervention in appointments. Several leaders have told the media said that it was not only former Maoist ministers but also some from the former UML who had complained about Oli’s heavy-handed leadership style.
Some of the moves which were interpreted as signs of Oli’s autocratic nature were:-
Three major departments—the National Investigation Department, the Department of Revenue Investigation and the Department of Money Laundering Investigation which were under various ministries earlier—had been brought under the Prime Minister’s Office.
Former Vice Chancellors had objected to the Oli Government’s move to amend the University Acts to include provisions to authorise the prime minister, in the capacity of the ex-officio chancellor of universities, to initiate a process to relieve officials—vice-chancellor, rector and registrar.
Human Rights defenders had sought a reversal of the to amend the National Human Rights Act to add provisions that would undermine the authority of the national rights watchdog and give more powers to the attorney general.
The media had been protesting the proposed Media Council Bill objecting to some of its provisions which they said were aimed at gagging the media and curtailing press freedoms. A number of senior leaders from the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) claimed that the bill, which was in Parliament, has tarnished the reputation of the party. Journalists and young people, including artists and singers critical of the government as well as human rights defenders and those working on transitional justice issues, were listed as among the most “vulnerable” to restrictions on their rights to expression and opinion by the government. The government was also framing a to restrict the screening of foreign films in cinema halls to 185 days a year. During the remainder of the six months, only Nepali films would have to be shown at every multiplex and single theatre across the country.
Provincial leaders were also angry about statements from Oli and Dahal that suggested that they did not subscribe to the division of responsibilities under the Federal system. Oli said that provincial and local governments were not separate entities, but units under the federal government. He said that Nepal was one nation, one country and had one government—the Nepal government. He termed seven provincial and 253 local governments as subordinate agencies.
Dahal,while speaking to leaders of the Madhes Tarai Forum, had threatened to topple the Province 2 government, saying that corruption was rampant in the province and that the provincial government had failed to work in the interest of the people of Madhes. The comments went against the spirit of the Constitution of Nepal which stipulated that under the Federal Constitution, all three tiers of government had equal status, but different responsibilities.
There had been comment in the Nepalese media that Oli feared losing his preeminence in the Parliamentary Party if his rival groups--led by Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal--decide to side with Dahal who had taken every possible opportunity to emphasise that Oli adhere to the rotational Prime Ministership agreement. While Oli was out of the country, Dahal was reported to have held consultations with several rivals of Oli from the former UML.
The Nepalese media had published a number of photographs of the two leaders together but kept drawing attention to the rivalry. The latest reports however suggested that some kind of compromise had been worked out and the two co-chairmen had finalized, after several rounds of talks, the division of work for the central members, departments and committees between the leaders of the former CPN-UML and Maoist party.
One of the issues of concern to the Maoists, but less so to Oli, was the functioning of the Transitional Justice system. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006 that ended the civil conflict provided for justice for all those who had suffered at the hands of the state and the rebels. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission on Investigation of Enforced Disappeared Persons—were formed in 2015. In the past four years more than 60,000 complaints have been filed with the two commissions. But detailed investigations are yet to start.
In 2015 the Supreme Court had struck down some provisions granting amnesty to serious human rights violations and called on the government to amend the law for transitional justice. But nothing was done. Conflict victims had been demanding that the transitional justice process be made victim-centric. The original selection of officials to head the two commissions was decided on the basis of political quotas.
On April 14, 2019 the leaders of the two commissions retired. The United Nations had expressed serious concern over the selection process of the new leadership. Rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Commission had said that the existing selection procedure lacked impartiality, independence and transparency. The rapporteurs had raised similar concerns earlier also. The UN had also criticized the Nepalese Government’s failure to amend the law despite the Supreme Court’s direction.
The civil war had taken place when the Nepali Congress was in power and the Maoists were in open rebellion. Both sides had victims resulting from the conflict. PM Oli was said to be less than enthusiastic about amending the law and making the two commissions transparent and effective as demanded by the UN and international human rights organisations since he felt that the issue was of concern primarily to the former Maoists and the Nepali Congress.
Conflict Victims Common Platform and Conflict Victims National Network, two umbrella bodies had called on the government to arrive at a broader consensus among the parties before moving ahead with the selection process. Both groups had threatened that they would not accept the new leadership if they were not involved in the decision-making process.
Finally in view of the concerns voiced by international human rights organisations, the recommendation committee had decided to consult with conflict victims before recommending names for the new leaderships for the two transitional justice commissions., Amnesty International, International Commission of Jurists, Human Rights Watch, and TRIAL International had asked Nepal to adopt a consultative and transparent appointment process, ensure the amendment to the law was in line with international human rights standards and with the Supreme Court ruling, and to come up with a plan to take the transitional justice process forward.
The political squabbling was not confined only to the constituents of the ruling party. In the Nepali Congress, Sher Bahadur Deuba was under pressure following the party’s rout in the elections. District presidents had questioned his leadership and criticized him for taking decisions without consulting other leaders in the party. They had criticized the endorsement of a new party charter ignoring the suggestions of the party’s Mahasamiti, the highest policy making body, and sought a review of the charter. The new charter has a provision of sitting CWC members automatically becoming the general convention representatives.
Two rival factions of the Nepali Congress led by Ram Chandra Poudel and Krishna Prasad Sitaula were said to have come together to pressurize Sher Bahadur Deuba to correct the recently amended party charter. They along with Prakash Man Singh were said to be looking at a common strategy to challenge Deuba. The party President had been avoiding holding the party’s general convention and had been seeking to extend the term of his presidency, along with the terms of the central working committee and other elected bodies, by a year and a half. He had reportedly also been holding consultations with Dahal and one reported cited him, after the meeting, as saying … “We overthrew the Ranas, the Panchayat system and the monarchy. If need be, we could unseat the Oli government as well.” The Nepali Congress’s Youth Wing had also been pressing Deuba to create conditions for the general convention to be held.
With two major parties of the country--CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Centre)--unified smaller parties were feeling the pressure to merge to gain strength as a strong alternative force.
The Rastriya Janata Party Nepal formed in April 2017 is the third largest party in the federal parliament. It was formed with the merger of six fringe Madhes-based parties--the Mahantha Thakur-led Tarai Madhes Loktantrik Party, the Rajendra Mahato-led Sadbhawana Party, the Sharat Singh Bhandari-led Rastriya Madhes Samajbadi Party, the Mahendra Yadav-led Tarai Madhes Sadbhawana Party and the Rajkishor Yadav-led Madhesi Janadhikar Forum- Ganatantrik and the Anil Jha-led Nepal Sadbhawana Party.
Recently the Naya Shakti Party of former PM Baburam Bhattarai had initiated a merger with the Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum Nepal to form a new party-the Samajbadi Party Nepal. Baburam Bhattarai, who led the Naya Shakti Party-Nepal, would head the federal council of the new party, while Upendra Yadav, who led the Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum-Nepal, would lead the central committee. The party’s statute, however, had given more executive power to Yadav than Bhattarai. Discussions with other parties have also taken place and Yadav had specifically called on the Rajendra Mahato led Rastriya Janata Party Nepal to join the new formation. Reports suggested that handling the leaders of the Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal would be the most difficult task for Bhattaria and Yadav.
Bhattarai’s functioning had irked leaders of his party. They accused him of unilaterally deciding on crucial issues and complained about a lack of internal democracy in the Naya Shakti Party. Three days after the unification with Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum-Nepal, dozens of Naya Shakti Party-Nepal leaders had expressed serious concerns over a number of issues including internal democracy in the new party. Many leaders had not attended the merger function.
The terms “broken”, and increasingly lacklustre, have been used to describe the functioning of the Oli government and his Foreign Office in the realm of foreign policy. Though Oli has been touring capitals, China still remains the favourite destination. Nepal and China finalized the Transit and Transport Treaty signed by the two countries in 2016, which would allow Kathmandu to use Beijing’s ports and roads for trade purposes in principle end India’s monopoly on Nepal’s supply system, providing a second option in case of future blockades etc. China has also been pressing Nepal to finalise projects under the Belt and Road Initiative..
There has been confusion with regard to some specific issues. The Americans had questioned Dahal’s support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his denunciation of American interference in Latin America—in a statement issued when the PM was in Davos. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to the US Embassy’s demarche for a clarification on Nepal’s policy.
There was also confusion about the repeated American claim that Nepal was very much a part of the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and no refutation from the Government leading to questions and comments in Parliament.
Lawmakers criticized Oli’s tours to European capitals without any tangible results and questioned the functioning of Nepal’s Missions which had not been able to ensure meaningful meetings with heads of state. During a visit to the United Kingdom Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali said that Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli had proposed a review of the 1947 tripartite agreement between Nepal, India and Britain during his meeting with outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May.
The statement issued by a spokesperson for the British Prime Minister made no mention of Oli’s proposal, adding to the confusion of agitating Gurkha veterans who had long been demanding equal pay.
With regard to India too controversy arose when news appeared that Indian pesticides for farm produce had failed testing. The media said the Indian Embassy had asked in writing for a revocation of the pesticide tests. A day after Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli openly questioned the existence of the letter, the copy of the letter was widely circulated in the media. The prime minister was forced to apologise, saying he said he had been “misled” by his own ministers and bureaucrats.
What does the future hold? Having tasted power again and heading the largest party in the Parliament would PM Oli willingly give way to Dahal to assume the Prime Ministership under the rotational agreement? If he feels secure and can neutralize those of his party who have been confabulating with Dahal, he might seek to stick on—a known characteristic of politicians in power. Would that lead to Dahal ending the merger and leaving the UML on its own with a reduced majority? If Dahal believes that fresh elections, in which he might get the support of Oli’s rivals and elements of the Nepali Congress, could propel him to power, he might abandon Oli.
But there are still many months to go—many months that will see more intrigue by the main players and their overseas mentors and possibly, though unlikely, a genuine attempt by Oli to improve governance; transitional justice and the economic situation. But democratic Nepal is unlikely to see single party rule in the near future and coalitions, with each constituent with its own agenda, might be the most likely scenario.