Immediately after the February 23 Supreme Court verdict reinstating the parliament, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who was proposed as the new prime minister in a no-confidence motion registered against Prime Minister KP Oli, had said he was open to all possibilities on new prime minister.
But a month since the landmark verdict, Dahal has been unable to oust Oli. In fact, he is nowhere close to doing so. Paradoxically, the Oli-led government still enjoys a governing majority with continued support of Dahal’s CPN (Maoist Center).
When Dahal shared laddus with another former Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to celebrate the court verdict last month, Prime Minister Oli had mocked their ‘premature celebration’.
Indeed, the country’s political course soon turned upside-down. The same court, on March 7, decided to annul the merger of the CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Center) to form the Nepal Communist Party, undoing the two-year-old communist unity.
A desperate Dahal has since failed to stitch up an anti-Oli alliance.
“We are on the street for the ouster of this government that took the unconstitutional step of dissolving the parliament,” says Purna Kumari Subedi, a leader of the Maoist party. “Yet removing Oli has proven difficult as we have had to depend on other political parties who are as yet undecided about what they want.”
According to Maoist leaders, the Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal (JSPN) holds the key for the formation of a new government. But the fourth largest party in parliament is as yet undecided on whether to back Oli or to join a broad anti-Oli alliance.
“The situation is not ripe for this government’s removal as those trying to remove Prime Minister Oli simply don’t have the numbers,” says Krishna Bhakta Pokhrel, a leader of the ruling UML’s Oli camp.
Dahal can potentially remove Oli from the prime minister’s chair in one of two ways: either by withdrawing Maoist support for the government or by registering a no-confidence motion.
Both options are difficult for Dahal with other major political actors sitting on the fence. To replace Oli by pulling out, Dahal must be able to garner the support of majority lawmakers against the prime minister.
“But if they fail to garner such a majority, the President will reappoint Oli as prime minister as the leader of the largest party in parliament,” says Pokhrel. “If, on the other hand, the Maoists withdraw their support, the prime minister must call for a vote of confidence. In that case, even if he fails to win the vote he could be reappointed.”
According to the constitution’s Article 76, Clause 3, “if Prime Minister fails to secure a vote of confidence… the President shall appoint as the Prime Minister the leader of the parliamentary party which has the highest number of members in the House of Representatives.”
As the Oli-led UML is the largest political force in the HoR with 121 lawmakers, Oli will be appointed prime minister again within a month's time. Again, if the leader of the largest political party fails to win majority votes, the constitution allows the President to appoint as prime minister any member of the lower house who can show a majority.
But as things are, no one party is in a place to claim such a majority, and if the situation continues there could be no option but to go for early elections—under PM Oli. Elections under Oli is something both the Maoists and the Congress dread.
Oli may bring populist programs to influence voters and he has a strong hold on state mechanisms. Also, according to the constitution the prime minister can recommend dissolution of parliament if no one can win a vote of confidence after the exercise of the constitution’s Clauses 3, 4 and 5 in Article 76.
Lack of confidence
In the second option, Dahal, with the support of Congress and JSPN, can file a no-confidence motion to oust Oli. But if the no-confidence motion fails, Oli's term as prime minister will be extended by at least a year. According to clause 4 of Article 100 of the constitution, the no-confidence motion cannot be filed ‘until another one year after the date of failure of the motion of no-confidence’.
Although the Congress and the Maoists are both desperate to oust Oli, they are afraid of bringing such a motion in the absence of an official JSPN decision to back the move.
“Registering a no-confidence motion will be risky until there is an agreement between the three major political forces outside the government,” says Congress whip Pushpa Bhusal.
According to her, consultations are underway to forge Congress-Maoist-JSPN alliance, but the ball is now firmly in the JSPN’s court.
Says JSPN’s Keshav Jha: “We have five conditions for supporting Oli.” The party has asked for the release of its jailed lawmaker Resham Chaudhary, withdrawal of cases against its cadres implicated in Tikapur killings, and registration of a constitution amendment bill, among its other demands.
But the JSPN leaders are also divided on whether to side with Oli or with the Maoist-NC alliance. A section of it including Mahantha Thakur and Rajendra Mahato are talking to Oli, much to the consternation of Upendra Yadav and Baburam Bhattarai who want Oli out at all costs.
Sources close to Oli say the prime minister could heed at least some of the JSPN’s concerns—and possibly divide it—in order to block the kingmaker force from joining opposing parties.
On the other hand, Dahal and Deuba are not confident of getting a majority even with the JSPN on board. Of the 53 Maoist lawmakers in the lower house, four have already joined Oli’s UML. With Maoists’ 48 votes, NC’s 61 votes (barring two suspended MPs) and JSPN’s 32 votes (barring two suspended ones) the three-party alliance would have just three more votes than the minimum 138 needed for a majority in the lower house.
“We will have 141 MPs even after the alliance with Samajbadi Party. If just four MPs remain absent on voting day Oli will secure another year in office,” says a Maoist leader.
Early elections, then?
Oli floated the idea of early elections during an all-party meeting at the President’s Office last week. NC President Deuba chose not to speak at the meeting. “Oli wants to vindicate his move of parliament dissolution by holding early elections and Deuba will silently support him by not taking an initiative to form an alternative government,” says an NC leader who is critical of Deuba, requesting anonymity.
Speaking earlier this week in Biratnagar, Deuba said that the NC would neither bring a no-confidence motion nor would it join the government. All the same, Congress leader Pushpa Bhusal says Oli has lost the credibility to hold election after his decision to dissolve the parliament.
“The present government cannot be trusted to hold timely elections. The Congress is always ready for elections because of its strong agendas but we cannot press for an early vote by going outside constitutional bounds,” she says.
UML’s Pokhrel says Prime Minister Oli is ready for early elections. “Although other parties are reluctant to face the people, Prime Minister Oli is ready. He is as ready for an early election as he is to face a vote of no-confidence,” he says.
… or a consensus government?
The Dahal-led Maoist party is not in a mood for early elections, say party insiders. The party has rather been pressing for a national consensus government, and Dahal had indicated his desire for the same after the restoration of the dissolved parliament in February.
“A consensus government is needed to pull the country out of its current quagmire. We are consulting political parties on the same,” says Subedi, the Maoist leader.
But Oli, who too favors early elections, is also not in a mood to let someone else head an election government.
According to sources, the NC and the Maoists have proposed Mahantha Thakur of the JSPN as prime minister of an election government, but Thakur is yet to give his consent.
A tripartite NC-Maoist-JSPN government could be unstable though and Congress leaders fear joining such a government could tarnish the party’s image on election eve. Meanwhile, an early election could work to the advantage of Congress at a time the main communist forces are bitterly divided.