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Can Nepal’s New Prime Minister Navigate Rough Political Seas?

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Can Nepal’s New Prime Minister Navigate Rough Political Seas?

Sher Bahadur Deuba faces a herculean task in managing fragile politics.  

Can Nepal’s New Prime Minister Navigate Rough Political Seas?

Sher Bahadur Deuba greets as he arrives to assume office after he was sworn in as Nepal’s new prime minister in Kathmandu, Nepal, Tuesday, July 13, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha

Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba was appointed as Nepal’s new prime minister on July 13, following a Supreme Court order. President Bidya Devi Bhandari appointed Deuba to the office, along with reinstating Nepal’s Parliament, which had been dissolved by then-Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli on May 22.

The septuagenarian democratic leader will be holding the post for the fifth time in his political career. Deuba now faces the uphill task of managing his own party and coalition partners to keep his government afloat.

His inability to form a cabinet a month after assuming office is a clear indication of the complexities involved. So far, the coalition government has only managed to come up with a common minimum program, which is a collection of abstract and vague points on key issues, a clear indication the coalition members are not on the same page even on such key issues.

Given Deuba’s past record and fragile coalition, there is not much hope for great success. But he shoulders a big responsibility: keeping Nepal’s constitution on track. The Deuba government must manage political differences well enough to lead the country toward the scheduled elections for local, provincial, and federal parliament, which will have to take place over the next year and a half. If the elections are delayed, Nepal is prone to face a political and constitutional crisis – after having already weathered such a crisis this year.

Deuba’s first and foremost challenge will be maintaining a good working relationship with his own party, a challenging job no prime minister has succeeded at since 1990. As Nepal’s political history shows, staying at the helm of a party does not guarantee that a leader can muster the support of that party.

Oli’s example offers some lessons if Deuba wishes to learn. The previous government initially had the support of nearly two-thirds of Parliament, but it collapsed due to Oli’s failure to manage different power centers inside the unity Nepal Communist Party. The single reason behind the collapse of the Oli government, which had a five-year mandate to rule the country, was Oli’s fraught relations with senior party colleagues Pushpa Kamal Dahal (also known as Prachanda) and Madhav Kumar Nepal. A power tussle inside the ruling party resulted in political instability and crisis.

Since 1990, all of Nepal’s governments have collapsed – not because of opposition parties but due to dispute insides the ruling party. Intra-party feuds are the main reason behind Nepal’s chronic political instability.

The Deuba-led government will not be an exception. So the first challenge before Deuba will be to maintain good rapport with his own party colleagues. The Nepali Congress (NC) is already a divided house, and Deuba faces severe criticisms from the party rank and file after the NC suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2017 national elections. Similarly, there is growing dissatisfaction inside the party over the delay in conducting a party general convention.

Deuba should learn from the mistakes committed by Oli when it comes to managing the party. Though Deuba was an unopposed candidate for the premiership, his rival factions in the NC are seeking respectable shares in government, such as ministerial positions and political appointments. More than that, it is vital for Deuba to coordinate with the party on vital policy-related issues, which builds a foundation of cordial party-government relationships.

Past experience, however, shows that prime ministers do not want to stay under the control of the party, while the party wants to maintain its hold over the government. This is the core problem for Nepal’s political stability, and in this tussle prime ministers often underestimate intra-party dynamics.

The second challenge for Deuba is to keep his coalition intact when his partners have different perspectives and priorities on both domestic and foreign policy issues. Like the NC, Deuba’s other coalition partners – the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) and the Janata Samajbadi Party (People’s Socialist Party) – are internally divided. Similarly, a section of Oli’s own Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) has supported Deuba in Parliament, but it is unsure whether they will continue to support the new government or eventually align with former Prime Minister Oli.

The Maoist Center, led by Dahal, has proposed a cross-party mechanism called the High-Level Political Mechanism to maintain control over the functioning of government. This clearly shows that Dahal is in no mood to allow Deuba a free hand. Mainly, Dahal and his Maoists are seeking an agreement in advance on an electoral alliance with NC.

It will be a herculean task for Deuba to keep his coalition intact. If any parties withdraw their support, Deuba will have to take a vote of confidence from Parliament, and it would not be an easy task for him to secure a majority of votes. Constitutionally, a no-confidence motion cannot be registered against Deuba, but if any coalition partners withdraw their support, the prime minister will have to prove his majority.

The third challenge for Deuba is maintaining a working relationship with the main opposition, the CPN-UML. It would be in Deuba’s best interests to reach out to Oli’s party. The strength of the opposition means the party poses a tough challenge both in Parliament – with 121 MPs, the CPN-UML holds more seats than any other single party – and in the street. To run Parliament smoothly and win approval for the government’s plans and policies, Deuba will need cooperation from the opposition party led by K.P. Sharma Oli. Yet Oli, having been removed from the prime minister post by a court order, is belligerent toward the new government. Oli has already complained over the lack of communication between the ruling and opposition parties; a month after he was appointed prime minister, Deuba has still not reached out to the opposition party.

In a show of his displeasure, Oli was not present in Parliament when Deuba was taking the vote of confidence. This is an early indication that Oli is not going to cooperate with the government. Instead, the CPN-UML is working to establish a narrative that Deuba is an illegitimate leader, as he was not the people’s choice but selected by the court. The lack of outreach from Deuba has not helped the situation, as the CPN-UML has been left to feel isolated and alienated.

Deuba will have to overcome these political hurdles to accomplish key tasks, such as ramping up Nepal’s vaccination efforts and ensuring good governance and service delivery. More than that, Deuba needs a favorable political environment to hold local elections next year and parliamentary elections in a year and a half.

If he fails to keep the support of coalition partners and his government loses its fragile majority, Deuba is likely to dissolve Parliament and announce new elections. If he fails to garner political support to do so, however, Nepal will face another political and constitutional crisis – just like the one that brought Deuba to power in July.