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.