Accord and Discord

What stands behind the calls for a “national unity” government in Nepal

Prior to the presentation of Nepal’s budget, in late May, a favourite topic of speculation in Kathmandu was just how long KP Oli’s prime ministership would last. All the predictions of its end have so far proven false. qilai shen / bloomberg / getty images
01 July, 2016

When Nepal’s finance minister read out the country’s latest budget on 28 May, he did so under unorthodox circumstances. Where budget presentations usually indicate a degree of stability in government, this one was expected to be a prelude to the exact opposite. Two days earlier, Pushpa Kamal Dahal—the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Centre), the ruling coalition’s main partner—had told reporters that, after the budget was announced, he would become Nepal’s new prime minister. He was to replace KP Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist), which heads that coalition. The handover was supposedly promised under a deal struck earlier that month between the CPN(UML) and the Maoists—which, in Kathmandu’s political circles, was referred to as a “gentlemen’s agreement.”

This wasn’t the first time in recent weeks that the Maoist supremo, widely known by the nom de guerre Prachanda, had pursued a change of national leadership. Until the early hours of 5 May, the day the gentlemen’s agreement was finalised, he had courted support from the opposition Nepali Congress Party to topple the very government his party was a member of. But strong disagreements within Prachanda’s party and a cleverly coordinated response from the CPN(UML) forestalled those efforts. Under the agreement, Prachanda abandoned his flirtation with the Congress and reiterated the Maoists’ commitment to the ruling coalition. He was convinced that, in exchange, the CPN(UML) would hand him the prime ministership after the budget presentation. This part of the deal, though, was not initially made public, and the CPN(UML) went on to deny it.

In the build-up to all of this, a favourite topic of speculation in Kathmandu was just how long Oli’s tenure would last. Prachanda’s prediction of its end proved as false as all the others. Oli, reneging on his apparent promise, has not stepped down. Rather than end his rule, the CPN(UML)’s new terms with the Maoists have shored it up. Now, both parties are trying to cement their positions in power by advocating for what they term a new “national unity” government. But in light of the deep political rifts over Nepal’s new constitution, and the persistent intrigue among the country’s largest parties—Prachanda’s recent machinations are just one example—“national unity” amounts to little more than euphemism.

In essence, a new government of the configuration desired by the CPN(UML) and the Maoists would also include the Congress—the third party of the “big three” of Nepali politics today. The party won 196 of 575 parliamentary seats in the country’s last election, in 2013, compared to the CPN(UML)’s 175 and the Maoists’ 80. Until September last year, it led a government that, with the other major parties’ support, ushered in a contentious new constitution. The Congress then stepped down, in keeping with an agreement to give the CPN(UML) a turn in power, but broke the agreement by deciding to nonetheless contest the resulting prime ministerial vote in parliament. That vote brought Oli to power, as the Maoists threw their numbers behind him. With the distribution of parliamentary seats as it stands, control of the country could easily swing between coalition governments, with either the Congress or the CPN(UML) as a majority partner and the Maoists as a king-making minority. A new government that accommodates all these three parties would require some form of agreement on more widely sharing the spoils of rule, in return for greater security of tenure for all its constituents.

If the Congress comes on board, it could provide a fillip to the current administration’s beleaguered credibility at a time when Nepal is facing unprecedented difficulties. The Oli government’s performance on multiple fronts has been characterised by failure and atrophy. One example is the shocking sluggishness of reconstruction work following the earthquakes of last spring. Another is its handling of protests against the new constitution in the Madhes, Nepal’s southern plains, which peaked with a severe blockade of trade with India (supported, in part, by the Indian government), and which continue in more subdued form. An underground economy that grew explosively during the blockade still operates, with the complicity of politicians and bureaucrats. Amid all this, the Nepal government must pass over a hundred pending bills to institutionalise federalism and enable local, provincial and national elections. Failure to do so before January 2018, when the current parliament’s term expires, would tip the country into a constitutional crisis.

Within the Congress, opinions on whether or not to join the government are divided. Last month, I met Shekhar Koirala, a member of the Congress’s central working committee. He said that while many in the party, including senior leaders, differ on this matter, he believed that the Congress and the CPN(UML) should not be part of the same government. “If Nepali Congress also joins a national consensus government, who will be there to check and balance the government from the parliament?” Koirala asked. But he saw the rationale for a change of leadership. “The leaders of Maoist-Centre came to us, saying that the present government was being ineffectual and that they needed our support to replace them,” he said. “And we agreed to that.”

Ram Karki, a Maoist politburo member, did not hesitate to criticise the present administration either. “The positions taken by this CPN(UML)-led government have left out the Madhesis, Tharus and several other groups,” he told me. The Madhesis and Tharus, both concentrated in the Madhes, are among the loudest critics of the new constitution, which they believe institutionalises historical discrimination against them. Karki’s proposed solution, in keeping with the Maoist party line, was to create a united political block for dealing with constitutional grievances by bringing the Congress into the government. To accommodate a larger alliance, he said, the Maoists would be open to any prime-ministerial candidate that the CPN(UML) and the Congress agreed upon. But he had doubts that the CPN(UML) leadership would be accommodating on this question.

At the CPN(UML)’s central office, I spoke to Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, the party’s secretary. Surprisingly, considering the party’s loud calls for a national unity coalition, Gyawali was far from optimistic that one could actually form. “Given the fraught relations between the three parties, I see slim chances of that,” he told me. What the CPN(UML) assumes is more realistic, he said, is that it can secure the Congress’s support for the government’s legislative initiatives and its efforts to implement the new constitution, even while the party remains in the opposition. As a model of how this could work, he pointed to a pact agreed last June between the Congress, the CPN(UML), the Maoists and one Madhesi party, the Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum–Democratic. Under it, the Maoists and the MJF–D, while remaining in the opposition, withdrew their objections to the draft constitution, and declared their support for ratifying it.

That Gyawali would cite this agreement as a desirable example of “national unity” is revealing of the three big parties’ blinkered understanding of that term. The June 2015 deal alienated nearly all Madhesi parties, a great deal of Madhesi and Tharu citizens, and also many from numerous other groups that felt hard done by the draft constitution. In particular, it ignored Madhesi and Tharu objections to the proposed borders of new federal provinces, which became major points of contention in the protests that followed. The present efforts at “unity” propose to recreate roughly the same majoritarian block that promulgated the constitution. As Gyawali told me, “the biggest priority is to consolidate pro-constitution parties.” This, in his understanding, would include even the royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal, which openly disagrees with such fundamental principles of the constitution as secularism and republicanism, but not necessarily parties representing Madhesis, or disgruntled indigenous groups such as the Tharu.

The government’s continuing failure to address disagreements over federalism threatens to create a permanent rift in Nepal’s politics. The division follows clear ethnic lines. On one side are parties dominated by the hill-dwelling Pahadi people—among them the three main parties, the royalists, and numerous small parties opposed to the creation of federal provinces. On the other are parties dominated by the Madhesis and by disadvantaged indigenous groups, which have lately formed an alliance named the Sanghiya Gathabandhan. A new government that does not accommodate these parties is likely to only aggravate the polarisation. Upendra Yadav, a prominent Madhesi politician and a leader of the Sanghiya Gathabandhan, told me that a change in administration would make no difference unless the major parties accepted the Gathabandhan’s demands to redraw provincial boundaries, restructure local government bodies and amend the constitution. The Oli government recently wrote to some of the parties in the Gathabandhan, but it has made no indication that it is willing to compromise on any of these issues. By way of implementing the new constitution, it has promised to conduct local-body elections—which Nepal has not had for 18 years—by December. Yadav insisted that the Gathabandhan will not allow those elections to go ahead until its demands are met.

Clearly, finding an amicable resolution to the crisis over the new constitution is not the main motivation behind the calls for a national unity government. Instead, those calls are likely spurred by the three major parties’ own specific interests, rather than national ones. Ajaya Bhadra Khanal, a political analyst and the former editor of the English-language daily the Himalayan Times, told me that much of Nepali politics is driven by “constant competition for access to public resources, and opportunities for employment and government contracts.” Now, Khanal said, with the government finally having cleared administrative hurdles holding up the release of an estimated $8 billion of post-earthquake aid—and with misappropriation of funds in infrastructure projects rampant—“naturally, Nepali Congress is wary about giving CPN(UML) the monopoly over the reconstruction operations.”

For the Maoists, the stakes are particularly high. Part of the gentlemen’s agreement committed the CPN(UML) to opposing future trials for war crimes committed during Nepal’s civil war, when the Maoists were a guerilla force fighting against the state. Khanal said that he sees precluding such trials as a major motive behind many of the Maoists’ recent actions. Koirala, of the Congress, told me that the Maoists, in negotiations with his party prior to Prachanda’s change of heart, had raised concerns over potential prosecutions, including ones that could arise from a truth-and-reconciliation commission formed last year. Had any agreement between the Congress and the Maoists materialised, he said, the matter “would have been addressed in some form.”

As things are, with the Maoists’ security regarding wartime cases seemingly guaranteed under their new pact with the CPN(UML)—and with fears on this front offering leverage against the Maoists should they break ranks—it seems Prachanda has put his prime ministerial ambitions aside. He protested briefly when Oli refused to quit following the budget presentation, but has since quietened down. The Congress may yet join the two ruling parties in a new government, but without Maoist support it cannot supplant the CPN(UML). All other competitors—including the Madhesi parties, and the Naya Shakti Nepal party recently launched by the former Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai—lack the parliamentary numbers to influence the shape of the government. This will remain so at least until the next national elections, due in January 2018.

All of this means that Oli and his party are increasingly confident of their new lease on power—and, consequently, not in the mood for compromise, especially with parties protesting the constitution. “The government can be flexible on genuine demands, but it is not possible to ignore the constitution,” Gyawali told me at the party office. Explaining that the government will go ahead with both local and national elections even if Madhesi parties try to impede them, he said, “New democracies sometimes have to pay a price when making a bold move. We hope such a scenario doesn’t come.”

Shubhanga Pandey is acting editor at Himal Southasian, a digital publication of Southasian politics, history and culture. He tweets as @shubhangap.