Coalition culture in Nepali politics

Binod Kumar Bhattarai

Binod Kumar Bhattarai

Coalition culture in Nepali politics

Forging a coalition among political parties with the objective of contesting and winning national elections is rather a new concept in Nepal

Political parties are still poring over their performance in the May 13 local polls. Among the ruling coalition, Nepali Congress, CPN (Maoist Center), NCP (Unified Socialist), and Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP) each has come up with its own evaluation. 

Congress increased its seats from 266 (35 percent) in 2017 to 328 (44 percent) in 2022, while the Maoist Center increased its seats from 106 (14 percent) to 121 (16 percent). United Socialist, a splinter party of the UML, got 20 seats (three percent), JSP went down from 34 seats (five percent) to 30 seats (four percent). The burden of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) split was mostly felt by UML, the main opposition, as it got just 205 seats (27 percent) compared to 294 (39 percent) earlier. In 2022, JSP, Maoist Center and UML together got 46 percent, two percent more than Congress.

While Congress seems satisfied with the results, Unified Socialist has publicly expressed its bitterness at the poll outcome. Such was also the case with JSP. Poignant reactions by Unified Socialist’s Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal and the bitterness expressed by JSP chair Upendra Yadav have been quite noticeable. They accuse grassroots-level cadres of other big coalition partners of not complying with the commands of central leaders and casting votes for their own party-affiliated candidates. Despite faring relatively better, even Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal lambasted NC for not exhorting its grassroots to cast votes as per the understanding among ruling parties. 

 Alliance implies a union or association between two or more parties, for mutual gain, shared interest or common goal. There have been many alliances among Nepali political parties for the attainment of a common objective. The NC-Left front alliance in 1990 together fought the autocratic Panchayat regime and reinstalled the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy. The shared objective was achieved and a multi-party system was restored after three months of national movement. 

Another successful alliance was forged among seven parties in 2006 against the direct rule of the king, with the intent of restoring the dissolved parliament.

In contrast, a coalition refers to collaboration of two or more political parties or groups to constitute the government if no political party has the majority.

Forging a coalition among political parties with the objective of contesting and winning national elections is rather a new concept in Nepal. Except for leaders at the top echelons, party cadres at the grassroots are rarely oriented on this. There have been many ruling coalitions in the past 32 years after the reinstatement of multiparty parliamentary democracy. Altogether 31 governments were formed after 1990, of which 19 were coalition governments, and 12 were single-party governments. Even after the promulgation of a new constitution in 2015, 11 governments were formed, out of which 10 were coalition and one was single party. Except in the case of the incumbent ruling coalition, never before have coalition partners contested elections together. 

Until the formation of the ruling coalition nearly a year ago, the grassroots level cadres of the constituent parties were trained to expand their individual vote banks by hook or by crook and to see as the cadres of other parties as sworn enemies. With the sudden change in the power structure at the center, and the arrival of a coalition, cadres at the grassroots could not now suddenly start seeing their erstwhile enemies as their friends. 

Moreover, the theoretical orientation of Congress workers at the grassroots, and that of its communist coalition partners Maoist Center or Unified Socialist, are diagonally opposite. Issuing diktat to grassroots cadres and voters to cast votes for their former ‘enemies’ was bound to be repulsive for many. There was inadequate orientation for grassroots cadres to cast votes for other parties. 

The grievances on the part of Dahal, Nepal, Khanal and Yadav suggest their anxieties of the political scenario unfolding after provincial and federal polls—what if the voting patterns remain intact? They seem to be concerned with a powerful Congress faction urging against a poll coalition and insisting on contesting elections alone. Such opposition, they consider, could be even more pronounced in the forthcoming provincial and federal polls, with the resultant cutting down of their votes and seats. 

Coalition leaders other than those from Congress are insisting on continuation of local election formulae of seat adjustments in provincial and federal elections. Together, this will probably give them more seats than were won by the UML-Maoist alliance in 2017. But it will also squeeze the Congress. Scores of influential Congress leaders who lost federal and provincial elections in 2017 could be barred from contesting forthcoming elections. The Congress high command may not be able to withstand the pressure of its own leaders this time. It will thus be interesting to watch how the ruling coalition will come up with a new formula of seat adjustments for the upcoming polls.