The Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) party president K. P. Sharma Oli was reappointed as Prime Minster of Nepal on May 13, 2021 by President Bidya Devi Bhandari, after opposition parties were unable to put together a coalition government. Oli formed the government in March 2018 in the aftermath of the 2017 elections. His party, which secured 121 seats in the House of Representatives (HoR), got the support of the then Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC), which won 53 seats.
Oli’s government’s, however, turned into a minority government after the Supreme Court (SC) gave a verdict on March 7, 2021, annulling the merger of the CPN-UML with the CPN-MC. Even before the SC verdict, top leaders of the two parties had differences over issues relating to power-sharing. In the post-verdict period, the CPN-MC neither withdrew support from the Oli government nor cooperated with it. The CPN-MC’s tactics paralysed the decision making of the Oli government.
On May 2, 2021, Oli declared that he would seek a vote of confidence in the HoR on May 10 after negotiations with the Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP), the Madhesh-based regional party. The JSP members of the HoR, however, failed to vote unitedly in favour of the government. Since the Oli government failed to secure a majority, as per the Constitutional provisions, specifically Article 76 (2), President Bhandari invited other political parties to form the government, stipulating May 13 as the deadline.
When these parties also failed in their efforts to form a government, Bhandari reappointed Oli as prime minister, as per Article 76 (3) of the Constitution, which stipulates that the parliamentary leader of the party which has the highest number of members in the HoR will be given an opportunity to prove his majority within 30 days.
Intra and inter-party dynamics
In the 275-member HoR, the ruling CPN-UML is the largest party with 121 seats. The second largest party, the Nepali Congress (NC), has 61 seats (after one elected member passed away and another was suspended), followed by the CPN-MC with 49 seats (4 elected members have been expelled); JSP with 32 (1 elected member has been suspended while another has died), the Nepal Majdoor Kishan Party and Rastriya Janamorcha, Rastriya Prajatantra Party with one seat each, and one independent member. Oli needs the support of 136 members to prove his majority. Since the UML has 121 MPs, Oli needs the support of 15 more MPs.
Given the current political dynamics in Nepal, Oli cannot seek the support of the NC, which is the main opposition party. He also cannot get the support of CPN-MC, given the bitter enmity between Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda, the leader of the CPN-MC. Differences with Prachanda, in fact, led to the fall of his government on May 5 after CPN-MC’s withdrawal of support. The MC did not participate when Oli sought a vote of confidence in the HoR on May 10.
Therefore, the JSP remains the most useful party for Oli to tap into for critical support. Interestingly, Oli had requested the JSP to join the government before finalising the cabinet on May 13. However, JSP’s senior president, Mahanta Thakur, reportedly refused to join the government unless Oli addressed Madhesi issues. The new cabinet under PM Oli took oath on May 14 without any representation from the JSP.
Earlier on March 23, 2021, JSP leaders had submitted a list of demands to Oli, in lieu of their support to his government, in case the CPN-MC withdrew its support. These included withdrawal of criminal cases against its leaders and cadres, their release from jail, passing of the citizenship bill, and making the Lal Commission report public. The government had formed the Lal Commission on September 18, 2016 to investigate the killings and violent incidents that took place during the anti-Constitution protests in the Terai region from September 2015 to January 2016. Former Supreme Court judge, Justice. Girish Chandra Lal, led the commission, which submitted its report in 2017.
Oli has already ordered the withdrawal of minor criminal cases and gave assurances regarding the withdrawal of other criminal cases in next three to four months, given that those cases are being reviewed by the judiciary. However, the government is yet to make the Lal Commission report public. The demands for amendment for constituency delimitation and citizenship require 2/3rd majority, which the Oli government cannot muster unless other major parties support the move.
In addition, other problems remain. The JSP is not a monolithic group. The second president of the party, Upendra Yadav and senior leader, Baburam Bhattarai, have been opposing any idea of extending support to the Oli government. These leaders favour an anti-Oli coalition. They argue that the JSP should not extend support to a leader who displayed his anti-democratic behaviour in the past. They specifically cite his move to dissolve parliament in December last year. Other than differences over Oli, there are also differences between the Upendra Yadav and Mahanta Thakur factions, on many issues.
Reports suggest that the JSP issued a joint press note on May 18, 2021 stating that it would not participate in the Oli government and will instead play its role as an opposition party. However, observers in Nepal still hold out the possibility that if Oli plays his cards well and shows his sincerity about meeting JSP’s demands, the party, or factions within it, may gravitate towards Oli.
Moreover, the May 18 press note could be a pressure tactic from the JSP. The JSP expects Oli to set up an amendment committee on the citizenship and constituency delimitation issues and table the amendment bill in the Parliament. Thus far, Oli has not been forthcoming on these issues; whether he would do it now to safeguard his prime ministership remains to be seen.
Given the complex relationship between the four major political parties, it may still be difficult for Oli to prove his majority in the HoR. Oli could aim to complete the remaining two years of his term by seeking the support of the Madhesh-based party, the JSP. Intra-party unity is also an issue, given Oli’s reflexive aversion for Madhav Kumar Nepal’s demand for power-sharing within the party. If Madhav Nepal’s faction defects from the party, then the JSP’s support will not suffice.
Oli may explore yet another option of dissolving the HoR and declaring early elections by October-November 2021, in the hope that his party will get a majority. Holding the elections will also be a huge challenge during the pandemic, especially without completing the vaccination programme.
Moreover, given his tainted reputation and authoritarian style of functioning, other political parties may not agree to elections under a government led by Oli. These leaders are apprehensive about manipulation of state mechanism by Oli during the elections.
Given these factors, it appears that Nepal will labour under yet another bout of political uncertainty in the coming months.