Prime Minister KP Oli’s political fortunes were sinking before the Supreme Court came to his rescue by decoupling the CPN-UML from the CPN (Maoist Center), thereby annulling the 2018 merger of the two parties to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
Had his rival faction in the party registered a no-confidence motion and had it been endorsed, Oli would have lost his prime minister’s chair. Also, prior to the court verdict, had the Election Commission decided to give official name and recognition to the NCP rival faction led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal, he would have had to relinquish party chairmanship. The rival faction was expected to be recognized as the official one, as the majority of party central committee members as well as its lawmakers were on their side.
Before the verdict, Oli was said to be short of garnering the backing of at least 40 percent lawmakers as well as 40 percent party central committee members whose support would have been needed to split the NCP and form a new party. In the worst-case scenario, Oli could have lost his position of lawmaker.
Many expected the prime minister to lose his PM’s position in the restored parliament. But the apex court verdict has vastly diluted that possibility.
The verdict forced most of Oli’s former UML colleagues to return to their mother party by ditching Dahal, who is now the head of the restored CPN (Maoist Center). Around 40 NCP lawmakers including former prime ministers Madhav Nepal and Jhalnath Khanal, who had sided with Dahal in the conflict against Oli, decided to return. They had no other alternative. Legal provisions in the Political Parties Act allow a party to expel its breakaway MPs, forcing the return of Nepal, Khanal and other MPs back into the fold of Oli-led UML.
“We have decided to honor the court decision despite our serious disagreements over it. It aimed at dividing the unified party and went beyond the writ petitioner’s demand,” says Narayan Kaji Shrestha, a senior leader of the restored CPN (Maoist Center).
Mr Plan B
Oli’s confidants say he always has a plan B. “Many had thought he would lose the battle if the parliament was reinstated. It is now clear who has lost the battle,” says Bishal Bhattarai, chief whip of the reinstated UML.
After the NCP’s unravelling, the Maoists, Oli’s coalition partners, have been mulling withdrawing their support to the government, in which case the federal government will lose its ruling majority.
“Our party is discussing withdrawal. A final decision will be made after consultations with Nepali Congress and Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal,” says Maoist leader Girirajmani Pokharel.
But an abrupt Maoist withdrawal seems unlikely because if they withdraw their support for the federal government, the UML could maneuver to remove the two Maoist chief ministers of Karnali and Far-western provinces.
UML chief whip Bhattarai says it doesn’t matter whether the Maoists stay or go. Either way, Oli will retain the premiership.
Oli-led UML has 120 seats in the House of Representatives (HoR) and needs only 18 more MPs to form a majority government. The prime minister has already put together a negotiation team to talk with the JSPN in order to lure them into the government. With the Madhesi party’s help, Oli can cobble together a majority even without the Congress and the Maoists.
That said, JSPN federal council chairperson Baburam Bhattarai as well as its chairperson Upendra Yadav are against joining Oli’s cabinet. On the other hand, Mahantha Thakur and Rajendra Mahato are interested, if the prime minister agrees to release jailed lawmaker Resham Chaudhary by withdrawing charges against him. “We are still in discussions. I cannot say what will happen right now,” says Laxman Lal Karna, a member of the JSPN’s negotiation team.
Sources say the JSPN could split over the issue. “At least 18-20 of the 34 MPs [including two suspended ones] from the party may break away to join the government,” says a UML leader who is involved in negotiations.
Maoist chairperson Dahal has also expedited negotiations to form a government of his own. He can remove Oli with the backing of Congress plus JSPN. (The Maoists have 53 lawmakers, Nepali Congress has 63 and JSPN has 34.)
The Congress is yet to commit to Dahal even though the two parties see eye to eye on the need to remove Oli. To reassure them, Congress leaders have asked Dahal to register a no-confidence motion against Oli.
Oli appeared confident of holding on to his twin posts even after the parliament reinstatement. He had been saying that the celebrations of Dahal and Nepal was premature and they would ultimately be empty-handed. Defying expectations, he didn’t bring an ordinance to split the NCP in a bid to retain his MP’s position, which he could have lost if the official NCP recognition went to the Dahal-Nepal faction.
Sources close to Oli say he had anticipated the court verdict on NCP’s dissolution. “Even if the court didn’t do the job, the Election Commission would have completed the formalities a few weeks later,” says the aforementioned UML leader who chose to remain anonymous.
UML leaders claim the majority of local government heads are Oli loyalists. “Our team has the support of the majority of the 753 leaders of local governments, even when we don’t count those loyal to Nepal and Dahal,” says Bhattarai, the UML chief whip.
Of the erstwhile NCP’s 388 local unit chiefs, 190 are loyal to Oli while 20 others aren’t with any faction, say party leaders.
Local representatives help their mother party build grassroots support and garner votes in parliamentary elections. This is why Oli is confident of a good UML showing in the next round of elections.
But Oli doesn’t have the support of the party’s second-rung leaders: the likes of Madhav Nepal, Jhalnath Khanal, Bamdev Gautam, Bhim Rawal, Asta Laxmi Shakya and Surendra Pandey who have been opposing his handling of the party and the government.
“The dissident faction will try to thwart him every step of the way,” says the UML leader close to Oli. “But what you have to remember is that he won back his old party name and election symbol, which is a huge victory in itself.” Both the NCP factions had eyed the enduringly popular UML electoral symbol of a blazing sun.
UML leaders including Ishwar Pokharel, Yubaraj Gyawali, Gokul Baskota, Mahesh Basnet and Ghanashyam Khatiwada had celebrated on their social media posts the court verdict that came in favor of Team Oli. Basnet and Khatiwada had said they were proud to be recognized as UML legislators within an hour of the decision.
Oli also has a stronghold on state mechanisms including constitutional bodies. Right now, his biggest challenge will be to manage the old leaders who have returned to the UML fold.