The March 7 Supreme Court verdict annulling the Nepal Communist Party merger has allowed the Janata Samajbadi Party, Nepal (JSPN), the fourth largest in parliament, to play the kingmaker’s role in government-formation.
“It’s a rare occasion in Nepali political history that the fourth largest party is being seen as the kingmaker, especially when the largest two parties between them have close to two-thirds majority,” says Laxman Lal Karna, a JSPN leader.
Potential kingmaker it may be. But the party is still undecided over whether to side with Prime Minister KP Oli and help him retain his government leadership or to join the anti-Oli alliance to topple the incumbent federal government.
The CPN (Maoist Center), which is desperate to unseat Oli, is waiting for the JSPN as well as the main opposition Nepali Congress (NC) to come up with their formal decisions.
There is a long story behind the formation of the JSPN that is now jointly led by a former prime minister, many former ministers and other towering political figures in Tarai-Madhes.
Fissions and fusions
The JSPN came into being 11 months ago following the merger of Samajbadi Party Nepal (SPN) and Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN) in the wake of PM Oli’s attempt to split the Samajbadi Party and reach two-thirds governing majority. After realizing that the prime minister was trying to split the SPN by enticing some of its lawmakers into the government, the SPN decided to merge with the RJPN so that the lawmakers plotting the split would be unable to secure 40 percent parliamentary party seats needed for a formal split.
Political parties led by Upendra Yadav and Mahantha Thakur had won 50 and 20 seats respectively in the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections that followed the 2007 Madhes movement. But the two mother parties soon split into many fringe parties, mainly owing to disagreements over joining the government. As a result, their agendas lost their luster and they lost seats in subsequent elections.
Major political parties including Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and Maoist Center pushed through the new constitution in 2015 amid disagreement from Madhes-based political parties. Their grievances over constitution brought them together again as they realized that they wouldn’t be able to do much as separate entities.
The RJPN was subsequently formed after the unification of six parties and the SPN came into being after the merger of two parties. Their alliance again did well in 2017 national elections, especially in Province 2.
Both forces sought votes from the Madhesi, Tharu and other disgruntled communities who wanted the constitution amended to address their concerns. The SPN had even joined the Oli-led government in return of a promise to amend the constitution.
But the Upendra Yadav-led party was forced to quit the government after his differences with Oli started to widen, and when Oli seemed in no mood to amend the national charter. Yadav resigned as deputy prime minister after Oli transferred him from Health to Law ministry, without Yadav’s knowledge.
Differences between Oli and the new outfit of JSPN, the united Madhes-based party, further widened after the prime minister dissolved the parliament in December. The party took to the street against the government move.
After the verdict
After the Supreme Court reinstated the parliament and undid the NCP merger in the first week of March, the two ruling coalition partners, CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Center) turned into arch-rivals. Congress, which was already in opposition, has also since taken the side of the Maoists to oust Oli. The JSPN, meanwhile, is waiting for the Maoists to pull out of the government before it commits to anything.
In this context, both the governing UML and the opposition NC and Maoists, have to rely on the JSPN to form a majority government. The supposed kingmaker party currently has 32 (eligible) seats in the parliament.
Reportedly, even as the JSPN continues to engage with the Maoists, relations between the ruling UML and the JSPN are thawing after the prime minister promised to address at least some of the latter’s demands.
The JSPN has formed an informal team to negotiate with Oli on their demands of registration of a constitution amendment bill in parliament, endorsement of the citizenship bill, release of its jailed leaders and cadres including lawmaker Resham Chudhary, and withdrawal of criminal charges against the same.
“We seek action not commitment this time. The prime minister has sought some time for homework,” says Karna, a member of the JSPN talks-team. According to Karna, to take the talks forward, the party awaits a timeframe from the prime minister.
“Other forces have also committed to addressing our demands but we don’t trust them yet as they are undecided on who should lead the government. Moreover, the chief among those forces, the Maoists, have yet to withdraw their support to the government,” he adds.
JSPN leaders say they are answerable to their voters and supporters who want their leaders released and political cases against their cadres withdrawn. In a recent interaction with civil society groups, Mahant Thakur said cases against Madhesi cadres were not withdrawn due to the state’s discriminatory policies.
Drawing the line
“The JSPN has drawn attention of major forces that always ignored its role in the past,” says Tula Narayan Shah, a close reader of Madhesi politics. “The major parties undermined this force both during constitution making and government formation. Madhes-based parties helped major forces form government without any conditions. This time, the JSPN has clearly outlined its conditions.”
According to Shah, JSPN’s stock in Madhes would rise if it succeeds in getting its demands addressed. “Any force that is critical of Kathmandu gets public support in Madhes. JSPN is demanding release or withdrawal of cases of those jailed or sued for protesting against Kathmandu. If this happens, the party will be welcomed with open arms in Madhes,” Shah says.
Asked whether another faction of the JSPN, led by Baburam Bhattarai and Upendra Yadav would agree to join the Oli-led government, Karna, who belongs to the former RJPN faction, says they won’t have a problems if the government address Madhesi demands.
But JSPN leader Pradip Yadav, who is believed to be close to Upendra Yadav, says that the party will decide only after key demands are addressed.
“Though we have some differences in the party, our common goal remains to press the government to address our concerns,” says Pradip Yadav. “There should be broad discussions inside the party on this.”
Analyst Shah claims that if the JSPN manages to gets its demands addressed, the Yadav-led faction would be positive about rejoining the government. “Those now against the idea of JSPN joining the government were earlier backing KP Oli without any concrete agreement. If the party joins the government after the grievances of Madhes are addressed, Madhes will welcome it,” he adds.
This achievement could also help the JSPN secure more votes in upcoming elections. Its leaders claim the party will sweep Province 2, which has 32 constituencies, and it may also win significant number of seats in Province 1, Lumbini Province and Sudur Paschim Province.
Present and future
The JSPN’s biggest challenge is to remain intact until the next round of elections. UML sources say Oli could try to pull some JSPN leaders into UML fold right before elections. The leaders who were earlier eager about joining Oli government by breaking away from the SPN are still interested in joining the UML, claims the leader who is close to Oli.
Some structural issues could also come in the way of JSPN’s continued unity. Though the SPN and the RJPN were united at the top, the unified JSPN remains a divided house at the grassroots, something that Karna too acknowledges.
Analyst Shah says it is way too early to predict future elections. But he reckons that the JSPN will do well. “CK Raut is a potent force. But I don’t think he will be in a position to challenge the more traditional parties at least until the completion of two more electoral cycles,” he says.
After that, Shah adds, Raut’s political star could rise as the educated youths of today who back him come of age and vote in future elections. “CK Raut has a bright future in Madhesi politics, in my reading,” Shah says.
Back in present, if Oli fails to win a vote of confidence in parliament, the JSPN may even get to lead an election government with the support of NC and Maoists. But right now that remains a matter of speculation. “Prachanda jee has offered prime minister’s position to our leader Mahanth jee. But then it is upon the one making the offer to create right conditions to make that happen,” says JSPN’s Karna.