With political turmoil ignited by Prime Minister Oli, parties are now in number games, which look like a futile exercise, given their strengths and internal feuds in ruling UML and Janata Samajbadi, the fourth largest force in Parliament.
There seems to be no clear way for the opposition leadership to put together a government.
Amid a raging coronavirus crisis, the country has fallen into a fresh political mess, and while KP Sharma Oli, who was reduced to a caretaker prime minister on Monday, closes his eyes to the rising number of cases, opposition parties are busy with their arithmetic.
The Nepali Congress’ plan to stake claim to a coalition government after Oli lost his confidence motion on Monday, however, seems to have hit a snag. A section of the Janata Samajbadi Party, led by Mahantha Thakur, has made its position clear—that it won’t participate in any government formation process. The Thakur-led faction holds around 16 votes in the House of Representatives.
It was largely believed that the Congress, which has 61 votes, backed by the Commnist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), which has 49 votes, would take the lead in forming a new government after President Bidya Devi Bhandari on Monday evening asked parties to initiate the process to replace the Oli government.
The Congress-Maoist Centre alliance has the support of around 15 lawmakers from the Upendra Yadav-led faction of the Janata Samajbadi Party. But together they can ensure just 125 votes—11 short of the required 136 in the 271-strong House to form a coalition government.
A meeting of the current and former office bearers of the Nepali Congress on Tuesday decided to hold talks with the Madhav Kumar Nepal-Jhala Nath Khanal faction of the CPN-UML before Thursday.
The President has given until 9pm Thursday to stake claim to a coalition government.
“We will hold talks with the Janata Samajbadi Party as well as the Nepal-Khanal faction of the UML,” said Congress Vice-president Bimalendra Nidhi.
The Thakur faction, however, has already made it clear that it would be an affront to the Madhes movement and tantamount to abandoning the party’s agenda if it took part in the government formation game.
“We have already communicated with Congress President Sher Bahadur Deubaji about our position,” said Surendra Jha, a leader close to Thakur. “There has been no communication from Deuba for talks with our chair Thakur. But anyway, there is no point in holding talks now regarding our support.”
According to Jha, his party, however, has wondered why the Congress has not approached it with an offer for Thakur to lead the government.
If the Congress and the Maoist Centre fail to convince Thakur, they will have to look to the Nepal-Khanal faction as the last resort.
The Nepal-Khanal faction, which is fighting its own battle against Oli within the UML, up until Monday morning had warned that its lawmakers would resign en masse.
But at a meeting on Monday morning, hours before the House session commenced to vote on Oli’s confidence motion, the faction decided to remain absent.
Accordingly, 28 lawmakers from the faction did not vote. Oli could garner just 93 votes. As many as 124 votes were cast against Oli, while 15 lawmakers, all from the Thakur side, stayed neutral.
There were 232 lawmakers present during Monday’s voting. Two lawmakers from the Maoist Centre, as many from the Janata Samajbadi and 28 from the Nepal-Khanal faction were absent.
Of the 28 lawmakers from the Nepal-Khanal faction, 20 are directly elected and eight were elected under the proportional representation system.
A Congress leader said if lawmakers from the Nepal-Khanal faction resign, even if only 20, the equation could change in the House.
In that case, the strength of the House would come down to 251 and the Congress-Maoist Centre alliance would need 126 votes.
With Yadav’s 16 lawmakers, the number is achievable, say Congress leaders.
But why would the Nepal-Khanal faction leaders sacrifice their lawmakers’ posts to help the Congress lead the government is the question.
As the Nepal-Khanal faction is fighting against Oli, there are two distinct lines within the group.
Some leaders say since their fight is against Oli, they should collectively focus on cutting Oli down to size, instead of helping other parties to form the government. But for some leaders, including Nepal, the fight against Oli has reached a new level, according to insiders.
A group of leaders within the faction wants to see Oli unseated, say insiders.
Leaders like Ghanashyam Bhusal, Yogesh Bhattarai and Gokarna Bista have been saying that they should not pay attention to the government formation process. But some others still believe that they should resign as lawmakers.
“We are now waiting for Oli to respond to our demands,” said Jeevan Ram Shrestha, a lawmaker close from the Nepal faction. “If Oli continues to ignore us then we are ready to resign en masse which could help the opposition parties secure a majority.”
The Nepal-Khanal faction has been demanding that Oli take the party to the pre-merger stage, just what the Supreme Court ordered, and start the party from there. The group is saying Oli must withdraw the March 12 decision of inducting some Maoist Centre members into the Central Committee and initiating action against its leaders.
“We are ready to sacrifice our lawmakers’ posts and have handed over our signatures to Madhav Nepal,” said Metmani Chaudhary, a lawmaker close to Nepal. “Our leaders are discussing the next move. But we have yet to take a final decision.”
With no clarity in the Nepal-Khanal faction, the Congress is left with no option than to wait.
Meanwhile, Oli has been making all efforts to block the opposition from achieving the number in the House to form a coalition government. Even though the Nepal-Khanal faction decided to remain absent during voting on the confidence motion moved by him, Oli has not taken any action against them or ousted them as lawmakers. In the party, Oli has authorised himself to oust any lawmaker he wishes to.
Insiders say Oli knows that move will be counter-productive, as removing the Nepal-Khanal group’s lawmakers would mean helping the opposition parties replace his government.
If the Nepal faction does not make any move and the Thakur group of the Janata Samajbadi sticks to its position, a new government under Deuba is almost impossible.
In that case, the President will invoke Article 76 (3), asking a party that commands the highest number of members in the House to form a minority government. That will squarely mean calling on Oli, who is the leader of the UML with 121 members, to stake claim to the government.
For Oli to prove a majority, he will need the support of the Nepal-Khanal faction.
“For us, right now our internal struggle against Oli is more important,” said Som Prasad Pandey, a leader close to Nepal. “We want to focus on our internal dispute.”
Recent developments have taken the fight within the Janata Samajbadi to a tipping point and the party is on the verge of a split.
A Janata Samajbadi leader told the Post that Baburam Bhattarai, the chair of the party’s federal council, on Tuesday attempted to hold a meeting of senior leaders to persuade Thakur and Rajendra Mahato to support Deuba to form a coalition government.
“Both Thakur and Mahato declined the offer,” said the leader who did not wish to be named. “After Monday’s voting, our party is facing a serious crisis, as both factions are threatening to initiate action against each other.”
The Janata Samajbadi Party was born out of a merger between the Sanghiya Samajbadi Party, led by Yadav and Bhattarai, and the Rastriya Janata Party, led by Thakur and Mahato.
It was a dramatic merger on the midnight of April 22 last year after Oli introduced an ordinance on Political Parties Act, easing the provisions for a party split and formation of a new party.
Leaders in the Janata Samajbadi admit that it is an irony that the party was formed because of Oli a year ago and Oli now is the catalyst for its possible split.
Given the parties’ strengths and particularly the factional feuds in the UML and the Janata Samajbadi, many say the current numbers game is just a futile exercise and that the country would sooner or later head towards early polls.
If the Congress-Maoist Centre alliance fails to form a government under Article 76 (2), Oli too is most likely to fail to form a government under Article 76 (3) if the Nepal-Khanal faction lawmakers stay absent.
That could lead the President to invoke Article 76 (5), which actually is an extension of Article 76 (2).
Article 76 (2) says in cases where no party has a clear majority in the House of
Representatives under clause (1), the President shall appoint as the Prime Minister a member of the House of Representatives who can command a majority with the support of two or more parties represented in the House of Representatives.
There is no way a Congress-Maoist Centre alliance could form a minority government under Article 76 (5) after failing to form a coalition government under Article 76 (2).
Once all provisions related to the government formation are exhausted, the House would automatically get dissolved as per Article 76 (7).
But Congress leaders are hoping against hope that the Nepal-Khanal faction could make a move soon.