A neck-and-neck competition is expected between Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, the two major parties, at the upcoming local, provincial as well as national elections. To best the other, each party will need the support of a third party, preferably the CPN (Maoist Center) or the CPN (Unified Socialist).
This is exactly what UML Chairman KP Oli did in 2017 to ensure the drubbing of Congress. To forge a left alliance, Oli had offered 40 percent seats to the Maoists under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system. It was a master-stroke: the alliance secured nearly two-thirds seats in national parliament and went on to form governments in six of the seven provinces.
Later, in order to prevent Maoist Center Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal from allying with the Congress, Oli merged his party with the Maoists to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP)—in what was the largest and most powerful leftist party in Nepal’s political history.
But the unity didn’t last. The party split in 2021 due to power-tussles in the top leadership and the former constituent parties, UML and Maoist Center, were revived. Moreover, the Madhav Kumar Nepal faction of the UML also parted ways with Oli and formed the Unified Socialist.
With another election season approaching, the current political dynamics resemble that of 2017. Oli wants to return to power by securing majority votes, both in local and parliamentary elections. Second-rung UML leaders like Ghanashyam Bhusal and Raghuji Pant are advising Oli that the party can secure electoral victory only through an alliance with like-minded parties.
Oli, meanwhile, has ruled out such unification. “There is no chance of left unity, but there could still be an electoral alliance,” Oli told the party’s central committee on March 23.
Some UML leaders say Oli has rather adopted a strategy of stealing leaders and cadres from the Maoists and the Unified Socialist to weaken the two parties.
A UML leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told ApEx that while Oli is not in favor of striking a deal with Maoist party like he did in 2017, he does realize the importance of a poll alliance.
“He knows that if the current ruling coalition remains intact in the elections, the UML won’t be able to return to power,” says the leader.
Oli appears more flexible on forging an alliance with the Maoists than with Nepal’s Unified Socialist: he hasn’t forgiven Nepal for his role in splitting the UML.
Oli’s strategy, therefore, is centered on an electoral alliance and a coalition government—not in merging with another party, something which in the past invited many complexities.
Senior journalist Sitaram Baral says snubbing the possibility of a left alliance or unity will be a strategic blunder for UML—and Oli is aware of this. But he also needs to tread carefully to bring the UML back to power.
“Oli has of late been using harsh words against Dahal, which will only push Dahal closer to Congress,” says Baral, who has closely followed Nepal’s left politics for over two decades.
The UML as well as the Maoist Center have become weak after the party split. The UML got weaker still after its senior leaders Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal walked out to form the Unified Socialist. The Maoist Center, on the other hand, has lost influential leaders like Ram Bahadur Thapa and Top Bahadur Rayamajhi who chose to remain in the UML when the NCP split.
The disharmony among communist parties has served the Congress well. The threat it sensed from its main rival, UML, has largely been tempered.
To prevent the Congress from becoming the first party again, second-rung leaders of both UML and Maoist Center are trying to convince their respective leaderships to unite for elections.
Maoist leader Haribol Gajurel says there is pressure on Dahal to revive the left unity.
Inside the Maoist party, the likes of Barsha Man Pun, Dev Gurung, Krishna Bahadur Mahara and Narayan Kaji Shrestha have been pressing their leadership on a leftist electoral alliance.
Even in the run-up to the 2017 elections, such second-rung leaders of the two parties had played a pivotal role to build an electoral alliance. Multiple sources confirmed to ApEx that these leaders have been frequently meeting Oli and Dahal to convince them to contest upcoming elections as a team.
Even China wants to see the left forces in Nepal reunite. When a fissure emerged in the NCP after the then PM Oli dissolved the House of Representatives in December 2021, China had sent its Vice-Minister of the International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Guo Yezhou to prevent the party-split.
China wants in Kathmandu a stable government led by communist parties, which will not tilt toward India or western powers. The northern neighbor has been encouraging Nepal’s communist parties to unite since the 2008 abolition of monarchy.
There has also been frequent exchange of visits between CPC officials and Nepal’s communist leaders over the years.
Most recently, UML Vice-chairman Bishnu Poudel led a team to China to meet their communist counterparts. Maoist leader Dev Gurung also flew to China on March 25 along with other party leaders. Observers see these visits as China’s way of wooing Nepal’s communist parties and trying to reunite them.
China views the Congress as a pro-Western party that doesn’t want to cooperate with Beijing.
Congress Party President Sher Bahadur Deuba wants to forestall a left reunion at any cost. To this end, he has been assuring the left coalition partners on a possible electoral alliance.
If the NC does not offer an olive branch to Dahal and Nepal, Deuba suspects, the communist parties will forget an alliance, to the detriment of Congress in upcoming elections .
Deuba told the party’s Central Working Committee meeting on March 25 that an alliance with the left parties would ensure Congress victory.
However, senior Congress leaders like Shekhar Koirala and Dhan Raj Gurung are against an electoral alliance with left forces. They are of the view that the Congress can win elections on its own. They say, alliance or not, traditionally communist voters will always be reluctant to vote for Congress.
Nain Singh Mahar, a CWC member of Congress who is close to Deuba, says the party leadership is cautiously weighing the issue of electoral alliance.
“We should have an understanding at the local level in order to forge an alliance and we are working towards that end,” he says. The Maoist Center and Unified Socialist leaders are open to overtures from the UML if the NC is not keen on retaining the ruling alliance.
Dahal has publicly said that if the Congress “pushes them into a corner,” his party will have no qualms allying with the UML. But the priority, he said, would be to retain the alliance with the Congress.
Top leaders from the Congress, the Maoist Center and the Unified Socialist have been working on a modality of alliance at the local level, but there hasn’t been much progress.
Political analyst Bishnu Dahal says having an electoral alliance among left forces won’t be easy—what with emerging geopolitical dimensions.
He says if communist parties try to come together, external forces may encourage Prime Minister Deuba to dissolve the Parliament and scuttle scheduled elections.
“India, the US and other western powers don’t want to see a united communist force in Nepal,” he says.
He also foresees another scenario: “If Deuba rejects electoral alliance, Dahal and Nepal may withdraw their support to the government in order to postpone elections.”
Even if an alliance for local elections does not materialize, say political analysts, one is likely during parliamentary elections.
Political analyst Puranjan Acharya says local election outcomes may prompt parties to rethink alliances for national elections.
The Congress will profit if the left parties fight elections separately. But if they unite, Acharya says, the ruling party could again see a repeat of 2017.
“In the previous elections, around 60 percent of voters cast their votes for communist parties. The Congress got 31-32 percent votes, which has not increased,” he says.
Journalist Baral also says in case of a left electoral alliance, they could still get an overwhelming majority and form a government, again sidelining the Congress.
“The NC is likely to slightly increase its popular-vote percentage,” he says. “A left alliance, on the other hand, may not be as effective as it was in 2017, but it will still emerge as a potent force.”
In 2017, under the FPTP category, of 165 seats, the UML won 121 (33.25 percent), the NC 63 (32.78 percent), and the CPN (Maoist Center) 53 (13.66 percent).
In terms of percentage, the UML and NC have near equal strength, making them main competitors. With the ever-present prospect of left unity, there are already discussions of a two-party system.
One of its proponents is Shankhar Pokhrel, the UML general secretary.
Speaking at a function on Feb 27, he had said that the country should opt for a two-party system (left and democrat).
“More parties mean more political instability,” he said.
PR votes secured by parties in 2017 elections
Nepal Congress: 3,128,389
CPN (Maoist Center) : 1,303,721
Rastriya Janata Party Nepal: 472,254
Federal Socialist Party Nepal: 470,201
Bibeksheel Saja Party: 212,364
Rastriya Prajatantra Party: 196,782
Naya Shakti Nepal: 81,837
Source: Election Commission