Nepal: Oli, The Master Manipulator
TC's foreign affairs primer
The past months had witnessed considerable speculation that Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s detractors were moving to engineer the ousting of the Prime Minister who, despite his second kidney transplant, was still holding office and continuing with his campaign to centralise power with himself. His appointment as Prime Minister after the last elections had been made possible by an arrangement in the Nepal Communist Party leadership that he, and Pushp Kamal Dahal the leader of the Maoist Centre which had joined Oli’s UML to form the NPC, would hold the Prime Minister ship by rotation with Oli getting the first turn since the UML had scored higher in the elections than the Maoist Centre.
With the passage of time it had become apparent that Oli really had no intention of relinquishing the Prime Minister’s post despite Dahal increasingly drawing attention in public and in private to the agreement regarding the rotational Prime Ministership. Oli had assuaged Dahal, by agreeing to let him head the Party organization. But despite this arrangement Dahal had not completely given up on securing the Prime Ministership and had been cultivating a support base through discussions with Oli’s rivals like Madhav Nepal, Bamdev Gautam and others.
Oli’s performance as Prime Minister had been the subject of criticism from within the NPC particularly for taking unilateral decisions, and his obvious disrespect for federalism, but no move had effectively been made to seek his resignation until recently when Dahal, Nepal and senior leader Jhala Nath Khanal all asked him to resign, leading to fears among party members that the party could split. Pushpa Kamal Dahal launched a signature campaign calling for Oli’s resignation as prime minister. Oli had called all “his” lawmakers to Kathmandu-which had prompted senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal to start his faction’s headcount.
Oli’s self confidence had led him to suddenly propose two ordinances -one to amend the Constitutional Council (Duties, Functions and Procedures) Act to permit three of the six members to take a decision on appointments in the second meeting if the first meeting failed to find unanimity and the other to amend the Political Party Act which would allow 40 percent of members of the central committee or parliamentary party to register a new party. The ordinances were immediately promulgated by the President, but such was the backlash and criticism including from Oli’s own party and ministers and constitutional experts that both the ordinances were equally suddenly withdrawn. But in the interim the third and fourth largest parties in Parliament, Rashtriya Janata Party and the Samajbadi Party, both with a large base in the Madhes had merged to form a new party which they had named the Janata Samajbadi Party. The new party had yet to define its internal structures but reports suggested that former PM Baburam Bhattarai would seek to head the Parliamentary Party but could face a challenge from Rajendra Mahato.
With calls for his resignation emanating from party leaders Oli had been attempting to prevent the holding of the Secretariat and the Standing Committee meetings of the NPC well aware that he was outnumbered. The Dahal and Nepal factions controlled the Secretariat, Standing Committee, the Central Committee as well as the Parliamentary Party. Dahal had insisted on a Secretariat meeting in February 2020 where Oli had not agreed to the suggestion that Bamdev Gautam be appointed to the National Assembly. The meeting had also seen that the majority of the members wanted Oli to resign.
Given this scenario, Oli had been trying to woo party leaders to avoid the Secretariat and Standing Committee meetings and to ensure that in the NPC Parliamentary Party he was able to secure a majority. Of the 174 lawmakers from the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), Oli had around 78 on his side—10 Members of Parliament short of a majority. In the Nepalese system the head of the Parliamentary Party that wins the elections becomes the PM. Oli was also aware that in a vote of no confidence in the 275-member Parliament, he would need the support of 138 lawmakers to retain the prime ministership, but if the Dahal and Nepal factions stood against him he would lose. Of the party’s 174 Members of Parliament, around 78-80 were on Oli’s side and around 35-40 on Nepal’s side. The Maoist faction had 53 lawmakers.
Oli’s strategy was therefore clearly to create divisions within the alliance opposed to him. He was said to have offered Nepal the party chair and his loyalists positions as chief ministers in at least two provinces and some ministerial berths. Dahal, on the other hand, was said to have offered Nepal the prime ministership. Then Oli floated a proposal to make Bamdev Gautam the Prime Minister and Madhav Nepal the party chairperson. He was also reported to have said that once the Covid-19 crisis was over he would step down.
With all this maneuvering going on the Chinese Ambassador to Kathmandu Hou Yanqi held a series of meetings with senior Nepal Communist Party leaders, expressing concern over the ongoing power play within the ruling party. According to some analysts China was more interested in keeping the Nepal Communist Party intact, and did not have any preferences about who would be the PM.
Oli was pressured by Dahal to hold a party Secretariat meeting last week which took place on Wednesday, 29th April. Till late last week it seemed that Dahal, backed by senior leaders Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal, would be able to force Oli to resign. But the Secretariat meeting held on Saturday, May 2 resulted in a quite different scenario with commentators saying that the personal interests of the different leaders shaped the outcome.
By the time of the Saturday meeting party vice-chair Bamdev Gautam had deserted the Dahal faction. It seemed that there had been a deal to allow KP Sharma Oli to continue as prime minister for the full five-year term while Pushpa Kamal Dahal would run the party and Bamdev Gautam would enter Parliament- a move he was happy with since it could open the way possibly to the PM’s chair in the future though that might need a constitutional amendment since he would only be a National Assembly member not eligible to be PM.. At the current juncture Dahal was said to be satisfied with running the party since Covid -19 had made the PM’s post less attractive. Jhala Nath Khanal, who was the first leader to demand Oli’s resignation at Wednesday’s Secretariat meeting and Madhav Nepal appeared to have gone along with the “deal”.
As the Globalist had predicted in an earlier article the wily, ailing Oli had done what was predicted. Ensured that he kept the PM’s office for himself. Scepticism is already apparent with some commentators adopting a wait and see attitude and calling the outcome of the Saturday meeting only a deal that might or might not be binding. Though there has been comment that Oli had agreed to countenance criticism, and abide by the party's instructions, and let Dahal run the party, it seems unlikely that, having won this crucial round, he would not continue with his normal manner of functioning. Only his health could deter him. Analysis in the Nepal media refers to Oli as a “ reckless adventurer” and against social and political liberalism who had only disparaging remarks to make about the April 2006 movement to overthrow the monarchy but was quick to accept the post of Deputy Prime Minister a month later following the success of the movement.
Nepal and its neighbours will be watching and waiting for the post Covid-19 period that could see further flux in Nepalese politics.