Can Nepal’s New Prime Minister Avert a Crisis?

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Can Nepal’s New Prime Minister Avert a Crisis?

Sher Bahadur Deuba’s return to the premiership will not be easy.

Can Nepal’s New Prime Minister Avert a Crisis?

Newly elected Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba smiles as he arrives for his swearing-in ceremony at the presidential building in Kathmandu, Nepal (June 7, 2017).

Credit: REUTER/Navesh Chitrakar

The newly elected prime minister of Nepal, Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress, has a host of challenges ahead, most prominently holding the second round of local level elections later this month, as well as provincial and parliamentary elections within eight months. Additionally, foreign policy, a perennial balancing act for Nepal, will be another major challenge.

The chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) Pushpa Kamal Dahal (often called Prachanda) handed over the reins of government to Deuba as a part of gentlemen’s understanding reached between the two leaders ten months ago. Deuba, 71, who hails from a middle-class family in Nepal’s far western region, has now become prime minister for the fourth time in the span of two decades. To secure the premiership, Deuba secured 388 votes in his favor out of 593 votes in Parliament.

The most challenging job for Deuba will be addressing the demands of Madhes-based parties, a thorny issue in national politics since the promulgation of the new constitution in 2015.  It is not an easy task, as amending the constitution to address Madhesi demand will require a two-third majority vote in Parliament, something the Prachanda government failed to achieve. On a positive note, however, Deuba secured nearly two-thirds of votes in the prime minister election and if he makes a little effort he may secure the necessary votes for a constitutional amendment.

Because the former Prachanda government failed to secure two-third votes for amending the constitution, local elections scheduled in Madhes, Nepal’s southern region, had to be postponed. Without meeting the demands of Madhes-based parties, it will not be an easy to hold the remaining elections in the short period of time allotted. If Nepal’s southern parties boycott the elections, it will trigger a long-term conflict in Madhes.

Deuba has said that amending the constitution to address the demands of Madhes-based parties is his top priority. He also signed an agreement with Madhes-based parties about addressing their demands, including increasing the number of local level bodies, on which the Supreme Court has already issued a stay order.

However, the main opposition Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), which emerged as the top vote-getter in the first round of local elections, is against a constitutional amendment. Technically, Deuba could secure a two-thirds majority without any votes from the CPN-UML, but it will not be easy for him to completely bypass the largest opposition party.

A failure to hold two important elections in the next eight months would cause a political and constitutional crisis in the Himalayan country. According to constitutional provisions, the tenure of the current Parliament will expire on January 2018 and replacement is mandatory.

Back in 2001, when Deuba was serving his second stint as prime minister, the tenure of Parliament expired and he failed to hold elections, which paved the way for the monarchy to take control. Then-King Gyanendra Shah sacked Deuba, calling him incompetent as he failed to hold elections, and the King assumed executive power. Deuba was then reinstated as prime minister by the King in 2004 — and again sacked in 2005.

Deuba is in as similar position today: if he fails to hold parliamentary elections by January, there will be a constitutional crisis. The one possible option is extending the tenure of Parliament, but this route is filled with a lot of challenges. There would need to be consensus among the parties as well as the judiciary. In 2012, when the parties were preparing to extend the tenure of the Constituent Assembly (CA), the court stood against it and the CA was dissolved, leading Nepal toward political and constitutional crisis.

So Deuba has become the prime minister in a very critical situation, just like in 2001. If he completes all the elections, his political career will rise to a new height; if he fails it will be detrimental to both the country and his political career.

Deuba is known for making quick and bold decisions on issues related to national importance. However, critics say such decisions have proved counterproductive to him and harmful for Nepal’s democracy. Similarly, there are charges that Deuba will concentrate on how to stay in power rather than addressing the genuine issues of the country.

Observers say this time Deuba needs to act quickly and decisively to avert the looming constitutional crisis. In doing so, he will have to find a way to bring the CPN-UML on board. The main opposition, the second-largest party in the Parliament, feels that it has been alienated by the Nepali Congress and CPN-MC, which hold the first and third-largest number of seats, respectively.

CPN-UML feels the NC and CPN-MC bloc are taking the credit for implementing the constitution, while the opposition is being isolated from the process. Without cooperation and support from the opposition party, Deuba can not perform well. But moving forward is not an easy task, as the main opposition leader, KP Sharma Oli, is not in mood to cooperate with the government — after all, he was ousted from the prime minster’s seat by Prachanda and Deuba’s bargain.

On foreign policy, meanwhile, Deuba faces the same challenges that his predecessor Prachanda faced. However, the situation is quite different for Deuba — when Prachanda became prime minister ten months ago, relations with China and India were not on track.

When he assumed power, there were suspicions that Prachanda would tilt toward India and ignore relations with China. Instead, Prachanda maintained a cordial relationship with both of Nepal’s neighbors during his stay in power. Toward the end of his days in office, Prachanda took some vital decisions with the purpose of appeasing China, including signing a cooperation agreement on China’s One Belt, One Road initiative and conducting the two countries’ first-ever joint military exercise.

Deuba’s challenge now will be implementing the agreements reached with China without affecting the relationship with India, which is not an easy task.

In recent years, Deuba has built a good relationship with India. He also has the image of a leader who is close to Western powers. In November 2016, Deuba visited India and met Indian leaders and officials, including with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At that time, Deuba also faced criticism for supposedly meeting with Tibetan leaders-in-exile in Goa, India. This was projected as violation of Nepal’s one China policy by media and opposition parties. Deuba had to come up with a statement saying that he did not meet any Tibetan leaders and clarifying that, as the head of Nepal’s largest party, he is committed to the one China policy.

Deuba had also visited India in 2015, shortly before the promulgation of Nepal’s constitution, on the official invitation of India.  Unconfirmed reports suggest that during Deuba’s visit, India conveyed its message regarding the contents of Nepal’s constitution. Along with Deuba, Prachanda was also invited for an official visit when the constitution drafting process was in its final stage.

Soon after trade across the India-Nepal border halted in 2015, sparking Nepali accusations of an Indian blockade, there was pressure on Deuba to tell the public about any sort of commitments he had made regarding the constitution during his meeting with Indian leaders in 2015 .

Deuba as a prime minister has expressed his commitment to fulfill the demands of Madhes-based parties, a position which has been backed by India. Though India is not vocal about the Madhesi, who live along the India-Nepal border, New Delhi has been pressing Kathmandu to address their demands.

Given his background, it is obvious that, like Prachanda, Deuba will face criticisms for tilting toward India. The mainstream media have already started to caution him on how to deal with China and India and there is domestic pressure on all of Nepal’s leaders to move forward on the agreements reached with China. So, along with completing the vital domestic tasks, Deuba has an uphill foreign policy challenge.

Time will tell if, for Deuba, the fourth time as prime minister proves lucky.

Kamal Dev Bhattarai is a Nepali journalist who writers on geopolitical issues. He has written a book about Nepal’s peace and constitution drafting process tiled Transition: From 12-Point Understanding to Constitution Promulgation.