Dahal may be the prime minister, but it’s Oli who runs the show

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Dahal may be the prime minister, but it’s Oli who runs the show

A coalition deal with the UML made Dahal’s prime ministerial dream come true, but in doing so he also compromised his executive powers, say observers

After the power-sharing negotiation between the Nepali Congress and CPN (Maoist Center) fell through on Dec 25, Maoist leader Puspha Kamal Dahal stormed out of the prime minister’s official residence in Baluwatar.

Dahal drove straight to the Balkot residence of CPN-UML Chairman KP Oli, where other Maoist leaders were already present. Within a matter of few hours the UML and Maoists worked out a power-sharing deal, thwarting NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba’s bid to retain his prime ministerial seat.

“Balkot meeting agrees to make Dahal new prime minister” read the headlines of most online news outlets. Deuba, whose parties won the most number of parliament seats (89) in the Nov 20 general election, was suddenly on the back foot.

The third-placed Maoist party, which secured just 32 slots in the House of Representatives, had outmaneuvered the grand old party. The last minute Maoist-UML alliance was supported by five other fringe political parties, effectively sidelining the NC not just from the center but provinces as well.

While Dahal certainly outdid Deuba, the real winner here was Oli. In recent years, the former prime minister and UML kingpin has solidified his position as one of the most powerful leaders in Nepal’s political history. He is both loved and reviled for his political cunning and nationalist attitude.

In 2018, the merger between the UML and Maoist saw the formation of Nepal Communist Party (NCP), which propelled Oli’s status as one of the most powerful prime ministers as well as the leader of the largest communist party. The UML-Maoist union, however, only lasted for just a little over two years. The party broke up after Oli began to display authoritarian bent both inside the party and in government.

The party division didn’t just cause intense rivalry between Oli and Dahal, but also led to the departure of former UML senior leaders Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal, who went on to form their own party.

With the party fractured, Oli found himself leading a minority government. In order to hold on to power, he made two unsuccessful attempts to dissolve the parliament, but the Supreme Court intervened and dismissed him from the prime minister’s office.

The NC led five-party coalition, which included the Maoists, went on to form a government, while the UML occupied the opposition aisle. For the Nov 20 election, the NC-led coalition forged an electoral alliance against the UML, which was contesting as a single party in most of the constituencies.

Despite facing the five-party alliance alone, the UML managed to win 78 seats in parliament, just 11 fewer than the NC and 46 more than the Maoists. More importantly, the NC-led alliance failed to secure enough seats to even form a simple majority.

And when Deuba refused to cede the prime minister’s office to Dahal as part of the power-sharing deal, the NC-led alliance disintegrated and the UML was thrust into the role of a kingmaker. The UML is the centerpiece of the latest coalition government and Oli the show-runner.

Political analyst Dambar Khatiwada says the political power of Baluwatar has shifted to Balkot. He adds Oli has already started to influence what decisions are made in Baluwatar.

The rekindling of Oli-Dahal relationship, given their past feuds, was unexpected. For now, there seems to be no friction between the two. But some observers say it is just a matter of time when their egos will clash.

As a prime minister, Dahal has all executive powers and wants to act independently without pressure or influence from the coalition partners, mainly the UML.  But since it was Oli who made Dahal’s prime ministerial ambition come true, Oli will obviously want to exercise or influence the executive decisions.

Oli has already been appointed the head of a cross-party mechanism formed to support and guide the government. Khatiwada says Oli has already established himself as the “de facto” prime minister of the current coalition.

Oli also holds the responsibility of drafting the government’s common minimum program, which means Prime Minister Dahal will have to act as per guidance of the Oli-led committee.

Besides, two key coalition partners—Rastriya Swatantra Party and Rastriya Prajatantra Party—are also closer to Oli than Dahal. A senior UML leader says Oli’s decision was key to RSP leader Rabi Lamichhane’s appointment as the Home Minister. Ahead of the election, Oli was highly critical of Lamichhane, a former TV host, and his party. But now he seems to have made peace with Lamichhane.  After taking charge of the Home Ministry, Lamichhane has been meeting Oli on a regular basis.

Khatiwada says this means the new home minister is more loyal to Oli than Prime Minister Dahal.

As for the RPP, the UML was already close with the party and had even forged an electoral alliance in some constituencies in the Nov 20 election. The UML, RSP and RPP also have similar views on issues of federalism, citizenship, and the demands raised by Madhesi and Janajati communities. Observers say this brings the three parties closer, and, as a result, Prime Minister Dahal will come under pressure to work as per Oli’s plan.

The prime minister’s work will also be made difficult by the fact that the UML candidates will be occupying the posts of the parliament speaker and the president. There is no doubt that these two key positions will be given to Oli’s close aides.

This will afford Oli sufficient space to wield executive power from outside.

Moreover, the UML arguably has the greatest organizational strength than any other political parties, which means Oli will have a significant influence on bureaucracy.

UML leader Mahesh Basnet says the UML has a pivotal role in the Maoist-led government. He also hinted at the possible merger between the UML and Maoists under Oli’s initiative.

But if past is any prologue, Oli and Dahal are sure to clash with each other, whether they are in the same party, in different ones, or for that matter, in the same coalition government.

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