Nepali Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli recently lost the vote of confidence in the Federal Parliament. Oli was not supported by 28 members of the rival Nepal-Khanal faction of the ruling party, CPN- UML, as they abstained from voting. Subsequently, the President invited the parliamentary parties to stake their claim to form a government by 13 May, to no avail — and Oli has thus, continued as the PM of Nepal.
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The possibility of a coalition government looked tough, as the Congress and Maoist Centre (MC) had a total of 110 votes — 26 votes short of reaching the magic number of 136. The JSP is a divided house with 15 members from the Upendra-Baburam faction ready to support the coalition, but 15 members of the Mahanta Thakur faction have refused to be a part of the new government.
The only possibility that remained is that the members of the Nepal-Khanal faction resign or are expelled for defying the party whip, then the Opposition could form a coalition.
The nation witnessed dark clouds on the horizon since Oli dissolved the House of Representatives (HoR) in December 2020. But the Supreme Court held that the dissolution was ultra vires and reinstated the HoR. Subsequently, the Supreme Court divided the unified Communist Party into its constituent parties, namely the UML and Maoists Centre, which was a silver lining for Oli, as he now commanded the largest party in the HoR. But things started going south after he could not manage his fellow party men, namely the Nepal-Khanal faction.
Nepal’s Politically Chaotic Past
Intraparty conflict is not something new to Nepal. Its history can be traced back to 1951 when Matrika Koirala formed the first civilian government; a leadership tussle among the former and BP Koirala led to the resignation of Congress members from the Cabinet. It resulted in King Tribhuvan’s exercise of direct control over the State. Then the party-less Panchayat era was an exception to this norm which crept in again during the multiparty democracy days.
In 1991, Girija Prasad Koirala of the Congress was elected as the PM. Still, he had to announce mid-term polls in 1994 because of a preeminent leadership battle between him and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai. Infamously knows as the 36-74 episode. The fall of Sher Bahadur Deuba’s government in 1997 was also due to the tussle between the two veterans.
The year 1997 saw three different governments; the Deuba Cabinet was replaced by Lokendra Bahadur Chand, the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) leader supported by the UML. But the life of this government was short-lived because of another intra-party crisis in the RPP, that replaced the Chand-led government with the Surya Bahadur Thapa-led government with Congress as a coalition partner.
Finally, in 1999, the NC, which secured a majority in the parliament, again fell into the trap of individualism when KP Bhattrai and Girija Prasad Koirala struggled for the post of the prime minister, furthering instability and volatility.
At this juncture, the nation’s political scenario seems no different from 1991, where a popularly-elected party was divided due to a tussle over leadership.
An Uncertain Future
As of now, the status of the government led by KP Oli is that of a caretaker, as the government failed to get a vote of confidence in the HoR as per Article 100(3) of the Constitution. In this situation, Article 76(2) of the Constitution was applied, which states that if there is no clear majority, a member who can command the majority with the support of two or more parties will be appointed as the prime minister. This was not possible as the opposition alliance lacked 11 members to get to the magic number of 136.
If no member can do so, Article 76(3) will be applied, which states that the President shall appoint the parliamentary party leader of the party with the highest number of seats.
This provision was way out for Oli, but it also mandates that a PM appointed by the above two provisions has to obtain a vote of confidence in 30 days.
Moreover, if he fails to get a vote of confidence, then Article 76(5) will come in to play, which provides for ‘charismatic leadership’ of the house, that is, any member of the HoR who presents a ground on which he/she can obtain a vote of confidence can be appointed as the PM.
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The speculation that Oli would dissolve the house and call for snap polls will only be possible if under the provisions mentioned above a PM cannot be appointed, and then, Article 76(7) will come in, allowing the PM to dissolve the HoR, announce the date for elections, and form the HoR within six months of dissolution.
Moreover, the precedent set in Rabiraj Bhandari and Ors vs Prime Minister Manmohan Adhikari and Ors (1995) has categorically stated that the power of dissolution should not be used until all alternatives for forming the government within the House are explored.
As per the mandate given by the people in the 2017-18 general elections, the communist alliance secured 64 percent of the total seats in the parliament. This makes it amply clear that the will of the people is for this alliance to govern the nation for a five-year term. But as things stand, the alliance has broken down, and the principal alliance partner has broken into two factions of 93 and 28 members.
A Case of Déjà Vu
For the UML to respect the mandate of the people, it is imperative that they unite, search for a consensus candidate to lead the government and form a government under Article 76(2). Although Oli has taken a step towards party unity by withdrawing the suspension of rival leaders, only time will tell us whether it is a correction or just a tactical move.
This move has bought Oli 30 days, after which he will have to face the house with a vote of confidence.
If the present leadership of factions cannot garner a simple majority, they can resort to Article 76(5) and ask Mahanta Thakur of the JSP for support in parliament. But, for this, Mahanta Thakur will have to show a majority of 40 percent in the central committee and parliamentary party to divide his party.
For the people of Nepal, the situation appears to be the same as that seven decades ago, with politicians bickering over the top post at the expense of the welfare of the people. For Nepalese politicians, ‘old habits never seem to die’.
(Sambridh Ghimire is a graduate of NLSIU, Bangalore. He is an electoral advisor based out of Kathmandu and tweets @SambridhG. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)