In his first term as CPN-UML Chairman KP Sharma Oli had unprecedented powers both as party chief and prime minister. For one, no leader in the country’s democratic history, except Nepali Congress leader BP Koirala following 1959 elections, had gotten to lead a powerful government with a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
There is already much speculation over his second term, which started with his reelection as chairman at the 10th UML General Convention that ended on November 30. The convention concluded with the UML vowing to return to the government as the single-largest party.
Says Lokraj Baral, a political analyst, Oli failed to capitalize on his immense power and opportunity in his first term. Oli’s undemocratic character and his intention of capturing all powers were the main reasons for this failure, says Baral.
In the party’s ninth General Convention in 2014, there had been a tight competition between Oli and Madhav Kumar Nepal for party chair. Oli was elected with 1,002 votes, while his rival Nepal secured 963 votes. The voting pattern of the ninth GC clearly demonstrated that Oli and Nepal had almost equal hold in party structures.
Soon after becoming party chair, Oli’s primary goal was to weaken Nepal’s position in the party and emerge as the indubitable leader. He went to the extent of stripping Nepal of his ‘senior leader’ position. Due to Oli’s “continuous humiliation and harassment,” Nepal decided to part ways and form a breakaway CPN (Unified Socialist).
After the party split, observers say, Oli has lost his charm and strength. Says veteran communist leader Radha Krishna Mainali, Oli may have become strong in terms of amassing resources but his political stature is declining. “The powerful Nepal Communist Party suffered a three-way split and Oli is now leading one faction of the three. His strength has substantially decreased,” he says.
In 2018, Oli had merged UML with CPN (Maoist Center) led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal to form a political juggernaut: Nepal Communist Party (NCP). But then he refused to share party and state power with Dahal, his co-chair, and he continued to sideline the Nepal faction, which had secured almost equal votes in the ninth General Convention. To fight Oli’s unilateral ways, the Dahal-Nepal alliance took shape. But with the Supreme Court’s decision to recognize NCP, CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Center) were revived. Oli then failed to keep CPN-UML intact.
Oli has been reelected UML chair after seven years, with a huge margin of victory over his only rival Bhim Rawal. Party leaders say although the 10th convention has strengthened Oli it has weakened the party, something which was also evident during the convention. Rawal challenged his ambition of being elected unopposed from the convention floor. “Oli’s intent was to become Nepal’s version of China’s Xi Jinping. His goal was foiled when some rebel leaders decided to stand against him,” says Baral.
Instead of encouraging aspirants for party posts to contest elections, Oli tried to block their path and handpicked a team that was favorable to him, annoying a large chunk of leaders and cadres. In the past, Oli had been a fierce champion of intra-party democracy.
Party leaders such as Ghanashyam Bhusal, Bhim Rawal, and Bhim Acharya, among others, have been sidelined. Even after the UML split, Oli has shown no sign of mending his ways. Addressing the convention’s concluding ceremony, Oli said that he was against party unification. Instead, efforts would be made to lure cadres from other parties.
According to a UML leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity, from this convention Oli wanted to prevent the emergence of any faction to challenge him. “The convention ended up sowing the seeds of intra-party rifts. Many leaders from Oli’s own camp such as Subas Nembang, Bishnu Poudel, and others are unhappy. The intra-party disputes will come to the fore once Oli forms a politburo and a standing committee,” says the leader.
Analysts Baral says Oli’s revival as a powerful leader is unlikely. “Oli’s downward-journey has already begun, and he will have a tough time reviving the party,” he says.
Leader Mainlai paints a gloomy picture of Oli’s performance during his first tenure as party chairman and he is not very optimistic about the future either. “CPN-UML has been weakened. Oli may also have sufficient financial resources but politically, he has weakened,” says Mainali. “The 10th General Convention should have come up with a new political vision for the party but Oli has failed in that bid.”
The 10th GC of the party concluded on November 30 by electing a 301-member Central Committee and the party formed a 19-member team of office-bearers. UML has become the first major party to hold its convention after the promulgation of new constitution in 2015. Oli will remain at the party’s helm till 2026.