Kathmandu, Nepal – Nearly two months after general elections, Nepal’s new constituent assembly elected Sushil Koirala as the new prime minister of the Himalayan nation in February, granting the veteran politician a more than two-thirds majority.
The unprecedented support for the 75-year-old chairman of Nepal’s largest and oldest surviving political party, Nepali Congress (NC), showed that lawmakers were keen on moving on from the political deadlock that had gnawed at the country.
Koirala’s elevation to the hot seat on February 10 became possible after negotiators from the NC and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) – known by its UML acronym – hammered out a seven-point deal that resolved the issue of power-sharing.
Through the deal, Nepal’s two biggest parties agreed to deliver a constitution within a year, as per the spirit of past agreements including the Comprehensive Peace Accord and the interim constitution, which came into effect after Maoist rebels abandoned an armed insurgency and joined mainstream politics in 2006. The politicians of the NC and UML, whose vision for Nepal’s future do not diverge significantly, also agreed on elections for the country’s president, vice president, and speaker and deputy speaker of parliament.
Addressing the parliament in the run-up to the elections, Koirala vowed to deliver the constitution within a year, assuring the legislators that he would “try to bring the maximum number of parties on board”.
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“We need to own the past agreements and works done by the last constituent assembly. People have voted for us hoping that we would promulgate a federal, democratic, republican constitution,” Koirala said.
Ever since Nepal began the tumultuous transition from a Hindu kingdom to a secular, federal, democratic republic in 2008, the country has been beset by political instability. Since then, the country had been ruled by four coalition governments, with the Maoists and the UML each leading two administrations. Each prime minister pledged to finish drafting the constitution and complete Nepal’s peace process, which revolved around the rehabilitation of around 20,000 Maoist soldiers who fought in the country’s civil war.
This was finally completed last August, with 1,460 former Maoist soldiers joining the Nepalese army (the rest chose voluntary retirement). But the crucial task of writing the constitution has remained unfulfilled due to the political limbo.
The first constituent assembly, in which the Maoists had the largest number of seats but fell short of a majority, collapsed in May 2012 after the major parties disagreed on the issues of federal states and executive powers. The Maoists pushed for around a dozen states along ethnic lines, while the NC and UML backed fewer states based on geography and economic viability.
In November 2013, Nepalis voted for a second constituent assembly that doubled as a parliament. The NC won 196 seats while the UML secured 175. The Maoists, who waged an armed insurgency between 1996 and 2006 before joining the political mainstream, were relegated to third place with just 80 seats, pushing them to opposition in the parliament. A further 26 lawmakers will be nominated by the government in the coming weeks.
A day after his victory, Koirala – who was the only prime ministerial candidate but still had to garner votes from the majority of lawmakers – took the oath of office in front of President Ram Baran Yadav, whose role is largely ceremonial, and appointed a party colleague as a minister without portfolio.
An inauspicious start
But Koirala’s coalition partner, the UML, boycotted the swearing-in ceremony, accusing him of not honouring the power-sharing deal between the two parties. The bone of contention was the home ministry, a powerful state apparatus that the UML had been eyeing as part of the deal.
The prime minister obviously didn't make a good start. The question of credibility emerged from day one.
While the seven-point agreement doesn’t mention the allocation of home ministry to the UML, the UML leaders have claimed that there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” to that effect. On Tuesday, Koirala agreed to hand the ministry to the UML, paving the way for the expansion of his two-member cabinet. Now the government has 11 ministers from the NC and 10 ministers from the UML.
But the hiccups at the outset don’t bode well for the alliance, long-term. “The prime minister obviously didn’t make a good start. The question of credibility emerged from day one. He should have honoured the agreement and allocated the home ministry to our party,” said UML spokesman Pradeep Gyawali. “But finally he agreed, and that’s positive.” He said the development also showed that Koirala, who has never held any ministerial portfolio before, is learning the ropes.
The delay, however, cast an early shadow over the Koirala government, whose tenure has been agreed upon for a year, prompting opposition politician Kamal Thapa to comment that his “countdown has already begun”.
Koirala, a bearded, bespectacled, taciturn politician with four decades of political experience, faces huge challenges. One of the biggest, according to Puranjan Acharya, a Kathmandu-based political commentator, is leading a coalition partner that is almost on par with the NC in terms of its representation in parliament.
“Koirala should not underestimate the strength of UML. Its nationwide organisational footprints, penetration in bureaucracy, professional and community groups places it on a much more advantageous position than the NC,” Acharya told Al Jazeera. He pointed out that most of the leaders of the UML were younger than Koirala’s team. “This shows that rather than treating the UML as a lesser partner, NC should regard it as a competitor,” he said.
“But most important, Koirala has to keep his own house in order. Although he holds a strong command over the party organisation, the same cannot be said of his party’s lawmakers, who are indispensable to stability of his government,” Acharya said.
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Former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who was Koirala’s rival for the post of parliamentary leader, enjoys strong support from NC lawmakers.
Acharya pointed out that in the past, every time the NC ruled the country, the battle for state power has ruined its government. “Almost all the NC-led governments in the 1990s have collapsed because of internal wrangling. Even this time, Deuba has emerged as a powerful leader within the party and can, at anytime, pose problems to the government,” he said.
But Acharya also believes that by securing the continuation of the president, a veteran NC leader, the path is now clear for the work needed on the constitution.
“If the prime minister and the president are from two different parties, the task of promulgating the constitution can lead to a turf war. But with Yadav on his side, Koirala’s work is easy,” he said.
Koirala also has to address disgruntled groups including a hardline splinter Maoist party that is outside of the constituent assembly. The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist boycotted the November polls, and its cadres threw petrol bombs at buses and trucks for defying the boycott, injuring dozens of passengers across the country.
The faction, led by radical Maoists who have argued for the continuation of their “people’s war”, has called for an all-party meeting to resolve the contentious constitutional issue.
The UML’s Gyawali said Koirala would be tested by how far he goes and whether he succeeds in bringing all the groups on board while drafting the constitution.
“Cobbling together a coalition is all about numbers, and that’s fine as long as the focus is on government,” he said. “But when it comes to drafting the constitution, he must try to win the support of the Maoists and the Madhesi parties that are in opposition.”