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The tricky post-election power-sharing deal

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

The tricky post-election power-sharing deal

No matter which party forms the next government after elections, Nepal will not have political stability for another five years

Who will be the next prime minister after the Nov 20 elections? The answer depends on whom you ask. But one thing is sure: one of the old faces will take charge of the country.

If you talk to CPN (Maoist Center) leaders, they explain why the party leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal is a natural candidate for the top job. They say Dahal had backed Sher Bahadur Deuba’s prime ministerial bid in July 2021 and it is time for the Nepali Congress to return the favor.

The NC, however, is a divided house. It is not entirely keen on handing over the prime minister’s role to Dahal. Deuba’s core supporters wish for his continuation as prime minister after the elections. They argue that the largest party should lead the government in the parliamentary system.

NC leader Min Bahadur Bishokarma says there has yet to be an agreement on post-election power-sharing.

“The party may lead the government with a condition of transfer of power to Dahal after a certain period.”

The NC, in its election manifesto unveiled on Oct 29, has mentioned that the post-election government will be formed under its leadership.

Meanwhile, the main opposition, CPN-UML, has already announced its chair KP Sharma Oli as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. The main opposition is contesting the elections alone in most constituencies against the five-party alliance of NC, Maoists, Unified Socialist, Janata Samajbadi Party and Rastriya Janamorcha.

Though the UML’s chances of emerging victorious over the alliance appear slim, its leaders are still hopeful.

Since there won’t be one runaway winner, the formation of the next government will be based on power sharing, an issue that appears more complex than it appears.

In Nepal, power-sharing agreements rarely take place based on shared ideology or vision among parties, and as a result, they are often fickle. As major parties have a history of forming and breaking alliances, there is no guarantee that Nepal will have a stable government after the elections.

If there is no crack in the ruling five-party alliance, chances are the Maoist party will drive a hard bargain with the NC to clinch the prime ministerial seat.

Maoist leader Dahal has publicly announced that he would like to be at the helm of power to implement his vision of economic policy. For him to become the next prime minister, the role of CPN (Unified Socialist), another party in the ruling alliance, will be instrumental.

Unified Socialist chair Madhav Kumar Nepal has already tapped Dahal as the next prime minister. On October 18, Nepal announced at a public function, which was also attended by Deuba, that Dahal would lead the next government.

Nepal and Dahal are closer to each other, and many see the prospect of their parties unifying after the elections.

What will be Congress’s position on Dahal’s claim to the seat of the executive is not entirely clear so far. However, a senior Maoist leader close to Dahal is hopeful that Deuba will concede.

“He [Deuba] has not made any promises, but he is also not batting away the idea of handing over the premiership to Chairman Dahal.”

The Maoist leader suspects that Deuba is keeping silent so as not to rile up his own party leaders.

Chances are that Dahal and Deuba may have reached a gentleman’s agreement on power-sharing when their parties decide to enter the electoral alliance.

Deuba will likely try to convince Dahal into splitting the five-year government tenure and taking turns to lead the country.

But Congress leader Nainsingh Mahar is not wholly convinced that Dahal will agree to the arrangement.

“I believe Dahal will claim for unconditional role of a prime minister. If that doesn’t happen, he will likely break the alliance.”

Mahar says Deuba also faces the challenge of convincing his own party leaders after the elections.  Inside the Congress, there is a strong opposition against the idea of the party relinquishing the government leadership to the Maoist party.

To take a final call on power-sharing, some leaders say Deuba is eagerly waiting for the election results.

If the vote outcome allows the NC to form a coalition government without the support of the Maoist Center, the situation will be entirely different. In such a scenario, the Congress will likely seek support from the Madhes-based parties and the Unified Socialist to form the next government.

But if the Maoist party, like now, emerges as a decisive factor, Deuba will have to agree to hand over the power to Dahal. To prevent the possible rise of the left alliance, some political analysts say, this is the only way forward for Deuba and his party.

If Dahal were to become the next prime minister, Congress would likely claim some critical ministries, as well as the post of parliament speaker.

After the Constituent Assembly elections, candidates from left parties have successively become the speaker. The NC, for once, wants to head the lower house, particularly after former Speaker Agni Prasad Sapkota, from the Maoist party, took many controversial moves while leading the lower house, including his roles in splitting up the UML and delaying the House endorsement of the Millennium Challenge Corporation Nepal Compact.

Though the post of parliament speaker is supposed to be impartial, Nepali parties have been using it to serve their own political interests.

The Unified Socialist is also likely to make a bid for some important ministries and positions of influence in the power-sharing negotiations based on how the party figures in the government formation process. As for other fringe parties in the five-party alliance, they will most likely settle for small ministries and ceremonial positions.

Power-sharing in seven provinces is another critical factor that could also affect the federal government configuration.

And in case the five-party alliance disintegrates, the role of UML will be crucial for the formation of the next government. As the party has already projected Oli as a prime minister, it will be hard for the UML to hand over the government leadership to other parties.

Some UML leaders are already predicting that squabbling in the ruling alliance over power-sharing will, one way or another, help their party. They are even hopeful about securing the majority seats, on the account of a poor vote transfer among the alliance. However, other leaders have made a more modest projection of securing 70 of the 275.

Inside the NC, there are two projections. Leaders close to Deuba say the party is likely to win around 100 seats (70 in first-past-the-post voting system and 40 in proportional representation), but leaders from the anti-establishment camp say they will likely secure only around 90 seats, owing to the intra-party dissatisfaction.

The Maoist party, meanwhile, expects to win at least 50 seats.

The major parties could also see their voter base chipped away by the recent popularity of independent candidates.

No matter which party forms the next government, Nepal will not have political stability for another five years. There is no clear winner in the electoral race of many political alliances based on experience rather than a shared vision for the country. The next five years will likely continue to see frequent government changes and political crises.