Political crisis in Nepal: PM Oli getting desperate as he runs out of options

As pressure continues to build on Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli to step down, he has only two options: either establish his majority support in party’s standing committee and parliamentary party, or quit. Another, albeit less likely scenario, is continuation of Oli as PM if he publicly acknowledges his mistakes, and assures the rival Pushpa Kamal Dahal-Madhav Kumar Nepal faction that those mistakes won’t be repeated.

In the nine-member NCP secretariat, the top party organ that oversees the party’s regular functioning, PM Oli is already in a minority. He is also unsure about his ability to garner majority support in the 45-member standing committee and the 174-member parliamentary party. This is why he is delaying the standing committee meeting. Oli says he is busy preparing the new policy and program and the budget. But he was nonetheless forced to call the party’s secretariat meeting on the evening of April 29. The meeting witnessed heated exchanges, with majority members demanding his resignation from the posts of PM and party chair.

PM Oli has warned of grave consequences. With President Bidhya Devi Bhandari firmly on his side, he can threaten with mid-term elections or a state of emergency. However, the constitution does not allow PM to announce mid-term elections, says constitutional expert Dr. Bipin Adhikari. “Mid-term elections can happen only if the federal lower house cannot elect new prime minister on repeated attempts. The constitution has envisaged a full-term of parliament,” Adhikari says.

PM Oli is trying to secure the support of majority lawmakers of the party. In the federal lower house, the ruling NCP has 174 lawmakers. Of them, 78 are in Oli’s favor, 53 in Dahal’s, and 43 in Nepal’s. To establish majority support, Oli needs 88 lawmakers. In order to do so, Oli is reportedly offering ministerial positions to the lawmakers close to Dahal and Nepal.

If Oli refuses to resign even after failing to gain the support of majority lawmakers in the party, the rival faction is likely to register a no-confidence motion in the parliament against the PM. In this scenario, he will lose his post, as opposition parties are sure to vote against him. However, both Dahal and Nepal are reluctant to opt for this course as it could ultimately lead to the party’s split. The two are of the view that Oli should be removed from the PM’s chair by keeping the party intact. So their first priority is forcing him to resign by pushing him into a minority in vital party committees.

Hemmed in

PM Oli has warned of grave consequences. With President Bidhya Devi Bhandari firmly on his side, he can threaten with mid-term elections or a state of emergency. However, the constitution does not allow PM to announce mid-term elections, says constitutional expert Dr. Bipin Adhikari. “Mid-term elections can happen only if the federal lower house cannot elect new prime minister on repeated attempts. The constitution has envisaged a full-term of parliament,” Adhikari says.

With limited options, the PM has adopted a strategy of divide and conquer, and buying time to weaken the rival faction. In the party’s secretariat meeting, Oli dropped a bombshell when he proposed making Bamdev Gautam, someone who is not even a member of parliament, as prime minister.

“The proposal of Gautam as prime minister has come with the intent of fomenting divisions. As this is not a feasible proposal, it could easily backfire on Oli,” says NCP leader Haribol Gajurel, a confidante of co-chair Dahal. “It is not in PM Oli’s nature to realize his mistakes, and the new proposal will further complicate things,” he says. In the secretariat meeting, Gautam, however, supported Oli’s proposal even while Nepal and Dahal abstained.

The constitution allows only a member of the federal lower house to be the prime minister. Oli has for long been neglecting party secretariat’s decision to appoint Gautam to the federal upper house, and to clear his way to the PM’s chair by amending the constitution. Now Oli has made a sudden volte-face. Nonetheless, amending the constitution won’t be easy as the ruling party is short of the required two-thirds majority in the lower house. “It is just a time-buying tactic,” argues Gajurel.

In the April 29 secretariat meeting, PM Oli also proposed the elevation of senior leader Nepal to the post of third party co-chair. Earlier, through his close confidants, PM Oli had offered some ministerial and chief ministerial positions to leaders close to Nepal. Similarly, Oli has assured Nepal of his support for the latter’s bid for party chairmanship in the party’s next general convention. Yet the ongoing corona crisis will make it nearly impossible to hold the general convention by the scheduled late-April 2021 date. Nepal knows this all too well.

The secretariat is again meeting on May 2 to take a final call on the standing committee. However, according to leaders, Oli wants to push it back as he currently does not command a majority in the committee.

Towards denouement

Both the NCP factions are in the middle of separate signature campaigns to prove their majorities in the parliamentary party. If the rival faction succeeds in securing majority support, Oli will have to resign. “It will be better for the prime minister to heed public opinion and step down. He has become highly unpopular following his pair of mistimed ordinances,” said Gajurel.

The long-standing rift in the ruling party had reached a climax when Oli issued two ordinances, one related to making splits in Nepali political parties easier, another related to minimizing the role of main opposition party in the constitutional council, a body tasked with making vital appointments to various constitutional bodies. Oli didn’t consult anyone beyond his small coterie on these ordinances.

Oli withdrew the ordinances after considerable backlash from in and outside the ruling party. Yet many party leaders reckoned he had already gone too far. In the past two and half years, Dahal and Nepal have been unhappy with what they saw as Oli’s ‘monopoly’ in the government and the party.

Oli is trying to buy time on two grounds. First, he says the rival faction should wait till the coronavirus crisis is over. Second, he argues that the government is already preparing to summon the House soon. As per constitutional provisions, the government will have to present its budget by May-end. Before that, there has to be a pre-budget parliamentary discussion and the government has to unveil its annual policies and programs.