Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and his primary coalition partner KP Sharma Oli have fallen out after just two months. To the surprise of many, the two political rivals had joined hands to form a coalition government on December 25 last year. However, the premature end of their relationship was not at all surprising.
Political analysts and media including this paper had anticipated the discord between Dahal and Oli. It was a matter of when, not if. This coalition government was formed on a weak foundation and fraught relationship between its two major partners, CPN (Maoist Center) and CPN-UML.
Dahal, who became the prime minister despite his party coming third in the November 20 parliamentary election, was never comfortable working with the second-place UML, whose leader Oli was effectively pulling the strings of the government.
Dahal’s ambition to lead the government had driven him toward Oli on December 25 when his pre-election coalition partner and electoral ally, Nepali Congress, refused him the prime minister’s seat. Before the parliamentary polls, the Maoist and Congress had agreed to share premiership, where each party would hold the post for 2.5 years.
As per the agreement, Dahal was supposed to become the prime minister first. But the NC leader and former prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, reneged on the deal after the party secured the most number of seats—albeit short of majority—in the House of Representatives.
When Deuba insisted that as the leader of the largest party he was the natural claimant to the post of prime minister, Dahal did the unexpected and entered a power-sharing deal with Oli, who until then was considered his staunch rival.
It was clear that Dahal reached out to Oli out of sheer desperation because he agreed to a power-sharing deal that largely favored the UML in the long run. In order to become a half-term prime minister, Dahal agreed to hand over the speakership, the presidency and the second-half term of premiership to the UML.
As expected, Prime Minister Dahal started feeling the pressure from Oli from day one. Oli had greater control over which party got which ministry, and he even took charge of designing the government’s common minimum program.
It was the Congress that came to Dahal’s rescue when the party, despite sitting in the opposition aisle, gave him the vote of confidence in January. That trust vote was a lifeline for Dahal who, having voted the UML candidate to the post of House speaker, was now under pressure to back the UML presidential candidate.
Now, Dahal is back with the NC in a bid to revive the pre-election coalition—and curb the growing UML strength. For some, Dahal has served revenge against Oli by dishonoring the gentleman’s agreement on the presidential election slated for March 9. Dahal has done exactly what Oli did to him in 2019, when the latter refused to honor the agreement to hand over the reins of the erstwhile Nepal Communist Party (NCP), of which they were co-chairs, and the government leadership.
There was already a severe trust deficit between Dahal and Oli. It started after 2019 with Oli trying to run the erstwhile NCP and the government without taking Dahal into confidence and trying to dissolve the parliament twice. Oli’s wayward attitude while running the party and the government led to the bitter break-up of the NCP.
Soon after the Maoist and UML agreed to work together for the second time after the November election, Oli once again tried to exert pressure on Dahal.
A senior Maoist leader says there was never an environment of trust between Dahal and Oli, which became even more apparent during the government formation process.
Prime Minister Dahal was unhappy with the way two coalition partners, Rastriya Swatantra Party and Rastriya Prajatantra Party, were close to the UML, adds the leader.
RSP leader Rabi Lamichhane was appointed the home minister at Oli’s insistence. And when Lamichhane was forced to resign over invalid citizenship, Oli had tried to reinstate him against Dahal’s wishes.
The RPP, meanwhile, was creating trouble for the Dahal government by making statements against secular state and federalism.
Another Maoist leader says Prime Minister Dahal was deeply regretful of having to lead a coalition with right-wing nationalist parties who were attacking and discrediting the constitution.
Dahal himself has described the coalition of the past two months as a “bitter political experience”, which showed suspicion against the constitution.
In recent weeks, Dahal has been deliberately keeping distance with RPP and RSP. He didn’t even consult the parties in power while forging an alliance with NC on the presidential election.
The UML, meanwhile, has termed Dahal’s decision to back Congress’s presidential candidate a betrayal. Oli has called Dahal an opportunist who would go to any length to be in power.
Political analysts say Dahal would have had no choice but to toe the UML’s line had it not been for the NC. They say the vote of confidence from the Congress was a turning point for Dahal, because it ensured the security of his government.
The NC on its part also tried to convince Dahal to revive the pre-election coalition by agreeing to uphold his premiership, provided the party gets the presidency. With the largest party behind him, Dahal has also made efforts to get closer with his old allies such as CPN (Unified Socialist), Janata Samajbadi Party, Loktantrik Samajbadi Party and other fringe parties.
Analysts say Dahal will be better off with parties that share common ideologies, unlike RSP and RPP.
There were external concerns too. Ever since Dahal came to power, there has been a flurry of high-level visits from foreign powers, like the US, India and European countries. It is said the visiting high-level officials were concerned that the same party should not get the vital positions of the country.
Prime Minister Dahal and his party, as well as the NC, were aware of the danger of the UML taking control of all vital institutions. For Dahal, it would have been a political suicide. He suspected that his government be paralyzed by the UML-nominated president, or worse, Oli could remove him.
At this point, Dahal’s key priority is concluding the transitional justice process, and to do so, he believes that the NC’s democratic credential can play a vital role. It is also the only way out for Dahal’s Maoist party, which has been losing its political relevance and popularity since 2017.
Political analysts say the prime minister seems to have weathered the storm for now. He will have to go through another round of vote of confidence in parliament and he will most likely hold his premiership.
Then comes the hard part of striking the right kind of power-sharing deal at the center and provincial level among eight political parties.