Troubles Brewing In Ruling Coalition?

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Recent political events have fueled claims that the current government has run into trouble. Even though important figures in the ruling alliance have ruled out the possibility of a change in the current administration, some signs point to the possibility that some unease among the coalition members may have arisen.

To begin with, the Nepali Congress, the main member of the present ruling coalition, has grown wary of the sudden formation of the Socialist Front, of which the Maoist Centre is a key component and which is currently leading the government. Political commentators and a section of the NC members claim that the three front parties in the current government — CPN- Maoist Centre, CPN-Unified Socialist, and Janata Samajbadi Party— formed the front to strengthen their negotiating position with the NC. They want to continue to play a substantial role in politics and in government on par with the NC, which is currently the largest party in the Lower House of Parliament.

Alternative strategy

This has caused some Congressmen to worry about whether Prime Minister and Maoist Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda wants to keep his position by displaying the sceptre of the Socialist Front in public. Some Congress members are said to be pondering an alternative strategy. Although there have been informal discussions between mid-level leaders of the NC and UML, nothing definitive has yet come out of them. In the meantime, Madhav Kumar Nepal, the chair of the Unified Socialist, criticised UML chair KP Sharma Oli for reportedly trying to influence the NC to overthrow the government by partnering with what he called rightist groups. NC General Secretary Gagan Thapa recently said that should the need arise, the ruling alliance may alter. Both claims imply the existence of some forces pushing for the government's alteration.

Additionally, the performance of the government has led to dissatisfaction among many members of the ruling alliance. Observers claim there is a growing misunderstanding and dissatisfaction among the coalition members about the federal budget. Apart from MPs from the opposition bench, several leaders of the ruling alliance partners, the Unified Socialist and Janata Samajwadi Parties, have criticised the budget, claiming that while many of them are less fortunate, influential leaders have obtained significant funding to carry out their pork barrel projects in their respective constituencies. Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) leaders and a few other parliamentarians have questioned the budget for reviving the legislators' constituency development fund. However, some coalition leaders have made an effort to ease the tension by saying that the administration and finance minister would address the objections raised by MPs regarding the budget.

According to some analysts, the UML has been reaching out to NC members to bring about a change in the existing administration. Oli, a bitter critic of PM Prachanda and Nepal, is thought to be willing to make greater concessions to the NC. One such concession is allowing NC president Deuba to serve a full term as the new Prime Minister. The UML has upped its efforts aiming to explore opportunities for forming a new government at the expense of the newly formed front, comprised of four left parties. The UML chief is hoping to rope in the Rastriya Swatantra Party in the future administration, provided the NC accepts his proposal. 

Another recent development that might have raised the level of displeasure in the Congress and UML is the investigation into the Bhutanese refugee scam, which saw influential Congress and UML leaders land in jail. The NC president, Deuba, Oli, and PM Prachand sat down for multiple rounds of parley shortly after the scam was discovered to sort out matters pertaining investigation on the alleged involvement of several other leaders and relatives. 

In the meantime, there have been debates regarding whether the current constitutional provisions, which result in hung legislatures, should remain in place. As per some leaders from the UML, NC, and other parties, the country's bicameral parliament is frequently held captive by smaller and fringe political groups if the current provisions are upheld. For instance, the Maoist Centre, which has only 32 parliamentarians compared to the NC's 89 and the UML's 79, has been in charge of the government due to a number game that has always been there whenever a new government is formed. The formation of the Socialist Front, which has 54 lawmakers, has been carried out to bolster the position of parties involved in the current set-up. Talks to alter this situation by amending constitutional provisions are now gaining ground, for which some leaders from the NC and the UML, have desired to join hands.

Alliance’s fate

Many within and outside of the parliament have viewed the House of Representatives as a chamber where all representatives are elected through the first-past-the-post system, unlike the present system where 100 out of 275 HoR members are elected through proportional representation. Meanwhile, the National Assembly, or the Upper House, should become a parliamentary body where representatives are elected solely through proportional representation. Enacting these provisions by incorporating them into the constitution would allow the HoR to become a vibrant parliamentary chamber, free from horse trading and bargaining by parties with fewer seats that could potentially play the role of kingmakers while larger parties fall short of a majority government. Many leaders and the people at large have decried this perennially frustrating situation, an outcome of existing constitutional provisions.

Despite all talks and conjectures over the ruling alliance’s fate, it is also true that the government may remain in place as the Congress chief is said to be reluctant to disrupt the current coalition set-up. However, there is a possibility that some NC leaders might convince Deuba to distance himself from the new Socialist Front. While this proposition is undoubtedly challenging, given the unpredictable nature of Nepali politics, things can change overnight. Nonetheless, the Nepali Congress holds the card to decide the fate of the Prachanda-led government.

(Upadhyay is a former managing editor of this daily.)

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