Soon after the Nov 20 elections, there were unfounded media reports on some external forces lobbying for the appointment of former Cabinet head Khilraj Regmi as the new president. Around the same time, the rumor mill was also throwing the names of former chief justice Kalyan Shrestha and prominent social worker Anuradha Koirala as the potential presidential candidates. Neither the media nor the public figured out which external forces, if there were any, and with what motive were trying to appoint an apolitical figure as the head of the state.
The rumor mill stopped churning when CPN (Maoist Center) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal on Dec 25 sought CPN-UML’s support to form a new government and in return vowed to support the UML candidate in the presidential election.
Ever since it has been widely accepted that the UML would once again get the country’s top position. The UML leaders are openly saying that Prime Minister Dahal has agreed to grant the presidency to their party. But, Dahal has again cast uncertainty on the issue. On Sunday, the prime minister told a group of editors that there hasn’t been any written agreement with the UML regarding the House speaker and president’s posts.
Did Dahal, in a desperate bid to lead the government, agree to offer all vital positions to the UML, without thinking of its long-term repercussions? After all, the Maoist-UML coalition was hastily formed, defying expectations of media pundits and the general public, who were certain about the continuity of the Maoist-Nepali Congress coalition.
The NC, the largest party in the House of Representatives, is not in the current seven-party ruling coalition, but it has—again defying general expectations—backed the Dahal government, rendering the House without an official opposition party.
Clearly, the NC leadership expects Dahal to reciprocate to its unsolicited support by offering either the presidency or speakership. Dahal has said that the onus lies on him to bring the NC on board. But his attempt at keeping the NC happy has also created misunderstanding between the Maoists and its main coalition partner, UML.
Within weeks into his premiership, Dahal has put himself in an awkward position. On Tuesday, after meeting with the newly appointed Chinese Ambassador Chen Song, Dahal reverted to his previous remarks saying that he remains committed to the agreements with UML. Later that same day, he organized an all-party meeting to give an impression to the NC that he was in favor of sharing the vital positions among the parties.
Dahal is notorious for being a political flip-flopper, and he seems to be at it again. KP Sharma Oli, the UML leader, for the time being, is maintaining his cool, for he believes that giving continuity to the current coalition best serves his party’s interests. Oli is savoring his role as the kingmaker and he has been meeting Dahal on a regular basis.
At this point, the only explanation behind Dahal’s behavior is that he wants to keep the NC by his side as his safety net, in case the UML were to withdraw support to his government. That way, Dahal could work out a power-sharing deal with the NC and give continuity to the Maoist-led government.
One can see that Dahal’s distrust toward Oli also stems from the way their relationship evolved between 2018 and 2021 when they were the co-chairs of the erstwhile Nepal Communist Party (NCP). The UML-Maoist merger had ended in a disaster, creating intense rivalry between the two leaders.
While the Maoist and the UML have finalized the power-sharing deals in seven provinces, they are yet to decide on president, vice president and speaker.
By leaning toward the NC, Prime Minister Dahal is probably trying to improve his bargaining leverage before the UML. If the UML were to get the presidency and speakership, Dahal’s party would be left with nothing once his term ends after 2.5 years and Oli takes over. The Maoists, NC and other fringe parties know very well that if the UML got both presidency and speakership, then in 2.5 years there will be a one-party-like system.
External forces are closely watching how Dahal will hash out the challenges of making appointments to these key positions. The experience of the past five years has shown that the posts of president and speaker could influence or strike down the decisions of the executive. There have been instances of external powers knocking the door of the president to fulfill their interests, if the prime minister is not cooperating.
With the UML unwilling to share the two key positions, Prime Minister Dahal’s efforts to offer either presidency or speakership to the NC are likely to go to waste. He tried and failed on Wednesday to forge a consensus on the appointment of the speaker. With his feet in two boats, Dahal is trying to sail through rough political waters. It remains to be seen how far this ride will last.