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Political Briefing | Can Deuba beat the odds?

Political Briefing | Can Deuba beat the odds?

Sher Bahadur Deuba as a five-time prime minister brings to the office his vast governing and electioneering experience. It was under his leadership that the three tiers of elections were completed in 2017. These elections were a sort of redemption for the veteran politician, who in 2001 had been dismissed from office by King Gyanendra as ‘incompetent’ after failing to hold elections scheduled that year. It is now once again up to Deuba to ensure timely elections and to forestall another constitutional crisis.

But that’s for later. First, he has to get the unlikely 136 votes in the federal lower house to continue in office beyond the 30 days he gets before the floor test. The Nepal-Khanal faction of the CPN-UML, with their 23 MPs, had backed Deuba’s claim to premiership. But if they vote for Deuba during his floor test, the UML will all but split, and this is something both the party factions seem determined to avoid.

If Deuba falls short of the magic number, his government will automatically turn into a caretaker one whose sole responsibility will be to hold elections within the next six months. If elections cannot be held by this time, there could be a grave constitutional crisis. As he tendered his resignation on July 13, Prime Minister KP Oli knew this well, and he seems determined to have it both ways.

If Deuba loses the floor test, KP Oli will be vindicated in his conclusion that there was no alternative to his government, further strengthening his hold on UML. If, on the other hand, Deuba gets the vote of confidence, he will take the country into the constitutionally mandated November 2022 elections. For this unlikely event to happen, the Nepal-Khanal faction will have to vote in Deuba’s favor by abandoning the mother UML ship. In that case, there won’t be a challenger to Oli’s party leadership and he will go into the elections and the next UML general convention in high spirits. 

The big danger is of a power vacuum if Deuba loses the vote of confidence and fails to conduct elections on time—and this is a real possibility. Multiple factors are at play. The BJP government in India has never been happy with the Nepali constitution and would gleefully see it bite the dust, which in turn will clear the way for the restoration of the Hindu state. Oli, who has of late switched his allegiance back to New Delhi, would help India in this effort as he looks to cash in on Nepal’s Hindu vote bank to get back to power. (His UML stalwart Mahesh Basnet is already calling for a review of the country’s federal and secular status.) 

If Deuba fails, a new ‘apolitical’ electoral government, like the one under Khil Raj Regmi in 2013, can’t be ruled out. Even back then, India had twisted many arms to get Regmi appointed as prime minister. Something like that could happen again. The Covid-19 pandemic and the Election Commission’s lack of preparations make it even more likely. The best case would thus be for Deuba to win the floor test and take the country into the 2022 November election.

Unfortunately, that is the least likely outcome, unless, of course, our political leaders can pull out another rabbit from their bag of tricks. But betting on Oli to support Deuba’s premiership and thereby diluting his electoral appeal will be asking for a lot. Those wishing for the failure of the current political dispensation are licking their lips.