The formation of a new government in Koshi Province, led by a rebel Nepali Congress Chief Minister, has not only highlighted the widening schism within the Nepali Congress, the largest party in the federal parliament, but has also posed a threat to the ruling coalition in the centre. To form a majority in the 93-member Province Assembly, new Chief Minister Kedar Karki received backing from the opposition party, CPN-UML.
The UML has 40 seats in this province assembly, the Congress has 29, the Maoist Centre 13, the RPP 6, the CPN (Unified Socialist) 4, and the Janata Samajbadi Party has one. Both the Congress-led bloc and the UML-RPP combination have 46 seats, making it difficult to establish a ruling coalition. Because the UML is the largest party in the province, it has made it difficult for the NC-Maoist coalition to create a government there.
The UML's 39 and eight rebel Congress assembly members threw support behind Karki in his attempt to prevent Maoist legislator Indra Bahadur Angbo from establishing his majority, ultimately defeating Angbo's in the race for chief minister. Karki was named as the new Chief Minister in accordance with Article 168(5) of the Constitution, which permits an assembly member to assume the job of Chief Minister if he or she can demonstrate a majority in the legislature, which Karki achieved.
Many see the move to form the government under a dissident Chief Minister as a last-ditch effort to avoid mid-term elections in Koshi after all other options had been utilised and exhausted. Since the 2022 elections, the province has experienced five different governments, with Congress' Uddhav Thapa and the UML's Hikmat Karki each serving two non-consecutive terms as Chief Minister, both failing to obtain a majority during floor tests.
Notably, Karki received support from the main opposition party while ignoring backing from majority of his own party assembly members and other members of the ruling coalition. Under the party whip, the majority of Congress members backed Maoist leader Angbo's candidature for CM. However, Karki secured the majority thanks to the orchestration of senior Congress leader Shekhar Koirala, who has been leading a rebellion inside the Nepali Congress against the party establishment led by President Sher Bahadur Deuba. Following the surprise move by Koirala faction, some have rapped Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba for failing to unite the party successfully, as he continued to ignore Koirala and other group members. Koirala's dissatisfaction has recently deepened, especially when Deuba declined to provide cabinet positions to Koirala's nominated candidates.
Koirala succeeded to get UML backing for Karki, much to the chagrin of his own party members affiliated with the Deuba group, as well as leaders of other ruling alliances, namely Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda. The factionalism inside the Congress party is anticipated to grow in the coming days. However, the newly elected Chief Minister's future activities would be widely watched, as they would determine the fate of the provincial government as well as the entire fabric of the alliance in the centre.
Many saw Karki's victory as a loss for his party and a reflection of indiscipline within its ranks. While Deuba and his supporters are outraged by the rebellion, the rebel leaders, led by senior Congress leader Koirala, appear to have failed to uphold the values of inner party discipline in a multi-party political system where the majority system of a single party or coalition culture is held in high regard and is religiously followed by political parties that rely on democratic norms and culture. The Nepali Congress chief and the leaders of ruling coalition has indeed been caught in a bind since they cannot force the renegade Karki to resign because doing so would entail a mid-term poll in Koshi Province. No party, not even the main opposition, wants a snap election in Koshi. Such as situation has allowed Karki to stay as Chief Minister.
Meanwhile, the new UML-Congress government in Koshi has now been perceived as a first move to challenge the federal five-party alliance, which includes the Congress and Maoist parties as major entities. These parties are anxious that dissident sections within the Congress, led by Koirala, may join forces with the UML, thereby jeopardising the coalition government. In response, Congress President Deuba and Prime Minister Prachanda persuaded Koirala to sign a deal in which he promised to maintaining the current alliance at the federal level. However, given the UML chair KP Sharma Oli’s current efforts, it seems likely that he would be willing to help any Congress dissident seeking to lead a new federal administration.
Following Koirala and Karki's ‘unexpected alliance with the UML’, supporters saw the current move as a means of exerting pressure on the five-party coalition. The UML and its chair may contemplate supporting any revolt at federal level to destabilising the ruling coalition. The Koshi example may inspire rebellions within the Congress, particularly from the Shekhar faction, to form a government with the UML and other parties, such as the Rastriya Swatantra Party and RPP, who may be willing to join a new government because these two parties are found within the UML arch, as many political observers say this new situation has indeed opened up new possibilities.
Finally, many see infighting within the Nepali Congress has challenged the ruling coalition's stability. While this decision has brought flak to leader Koirala and Chief Minister Karki and rebellious Congress assembly leaders, it has dealt a huge blow to Deuba and the party's establishment. If Deuba wants the coalition to last, he must address the rival faction's worries and frustrations. Otherwise, if the dissident faction's dissatisfaction grows, the Koirala group may be tempted to make another unexpected move that might be fatal for both the Congress establishment and the five-party coalition. Much will, however, depend on how the new chief minister and senior leader, Koirala, acts in the coming days.
(Upadhyay is former managing editor of this daily.)