On Monday, 10 May, when Nepal reported the highest single day COVID cases numbering 9127, taking the nationwide infection tally to 403,794, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli lost the vote of confidence in the Lower House of the Parliament, following months of internal party dispute.
PM Oli, whose government has now been reduced to a ‘caretaker’ one, secured only 93 votes in his favour, which fell short of 43 votes to reach the 136 mark, in order to win the confidence motion.
A total of 124 members in the 271-member House voted against, but 28 dissidents from the ruling Nepal Communist Party-United Marxist Leninist, including former Prime Ministers Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal, abstained from voting in spite of the party whip.
The Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP), however, got divided during the voting process. The lawmakers close to senior leaders Baburam Bhattarai and Upendra Yadav voted against Oli, while those close to Chairman Mahantha Thakur stayed neutral during the trust vote. As many as 15 of its lawmakers stayed neutral. After proroguing the Parliament, President Bidya Devi Bhandari has called for the formation of a majority government within three days as per Article 76 (2) of the Constitution of Nepal.
Possible Political Scenarios That May Play Out
The Nepali Congress (NC), with 61 members in the House, has emerged as the game-maker, as NC Chairman Sher Bahadur Deuba could claim government-formation along with the Maoist Centre and Madhesi party. But the intricacies run deeper in Nepali politics as it is widely divided on intra and inter-party lines.
Three possible scenarios may emerge.
In scenario one, the abstaining Madhesi leaders may, in the immediate 24 hours, join a NC-led coalition, although it is hard to tell if Mr Thakur would make a last minute change of mind. At least 12 out of the 15 abstaining members are required to add to 124 to form a new government. However, a number of rushed meetings between Deuba and Mahantha Thakur, in the past few months, have not proved productive.
In scenario two, former prime ministers Nepal and Khanal, along with others from the 28 absent voters from UML could resign, thereby becoming independent candidates who might support a new government formation under the NC leadership.
This is likely if the CPN-UML takes actions against those abstaining from the vote in the parliament.
The major twist is scenario three.
There is also an equal likelihood that the NC and CPN-UML may come together — that could secure a comfortable majority for a new government formation. The NC has 61 and Oli’s UML 93 seats in the parliament. This could be a severe blow to the most-talked-about democratic political realignment in Nepali politics amongst the NC, Maoists and Madhesis. Given the three-day deadline set by the president for claiming a new government, Mr Deuba could strike a deal with Oli too.
What Led to Oli’s Downfall?
Things started working against Oli since his recommendation to dissolve the House on 20 December 2020. The move, vehemently backed by the President, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (SC) of Nepal, which ruled to reinstate the House earlier this year.
But the second SC ruling dealt a severe blow to UML as it virtually split the Communist unity by bringing the former Maoists and the UML to the pre-poll status.
Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda withdrew support to the Oli government last week. Prachanda, along with Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal, have been demanding Oli’s resignation since late 2020 on grounds of the PM’s inability to handle the COVID crisis and his highhandedness in dealing with governance matters without consultation within the party.
The two UML factions have been charging each other with harsh criticism since.
Nepal Sees India-Like COVID Catastrophe
Soon after India’s COVID cases and death toll started to rise exponentially, Nepal too began reporting an alarming situation, mainly over the past 15 days. The countrywide death toll has reached 3,859 with active cases now standing at 93,141. The Nepali migrant labourers travelling from India are considered to be the major transmitters as cases have been reported from all over the country.
The cases in the mid-Hills have surged from where thousands come to India to seek livelihood, and also the Terai districts adjoining UP and Bihar in India, that share open borders with Nepal. India and Nepal share an 1800 km open border system, with 37 motorable land entry points.
Nepal’s Vaccine Crisis
Even as PM Oli went on record in an interview with CNN two days ago, stating that the COVID scene was under control in Nepal, the ground reports state otherwise. The country has seen an explosion of COVID cases, as Nepal was reporting just around 100 cases in April. On 10 May, 9,271 people tested positive — and 139 others succumbed to COVID. There is a severe dearth of oxygen supply, ICU beds, ventilators and vaccines. A repeat of India’s horror can be seen and expected in Nepal.
Some 300,000 to 400,000 migrant labourers are still expected to cross the border in the coming days, where testing and quarantine facilities are almost nil. The Nepal government did not mobilise the Army this time around, like it had done in the wake of the first wave in India last year.
Mr Oli’s government even came under the scanner for alleged corruption in vaccine supply from the Serum Institute of India. Millions of doses on purchase order by Nepal have not been delivered yet.
Nepal has received around 2 million doses of vaccines as part of India’s vaccine diplomacy so far. It is alleged that the remaining delivery has been stopped to protect key business interests of some private players in Nepal. In addition, the involvement of private players has emerged in vaccine imports from China and Russia too. In 2020, the Oli government faced severe criticism during the import of key medical supplies through a private firm.
Continuing Political Turbulence
Meanwhile, the country continues to reel under political uncertainty which is particularly bad for the COVID crisis. The transition will come only after a vital political alliance is forged; this may be hard given the time-constrained COVID scenario. As it is, Nepal’s weak public health system is unable to bear the brunt of this public health crisis.
As one of the poorest countries in South Asia, the political turbulence will directly affect not only the poor and the most vulnerable but also those in the capital city of Kathmandu which is witnessing a daily rise in COVID cases.
On Monday, the capital recoded 4000+ cases. The total number of deaths in Kathmandu till date is 826, it is 234 in Lalitpur, and in Bhaktapur it is 172.
(The author is a Nepali journalist, researcher based in New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)