Last week, Nepal elected Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka Prachanda, the “fearsome one”) as the country’s 24th prime minister in 25 years. The former rebel chief and chairman of the CPN-Maoist Center (MC) was sworn in to govern for a whopping nine months. Following his turn, Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba is already lined up to govern as prime minister for another nine months. In addition to being responsible for leading Nepal out of earthquake-inflicted misery, these two gentlemen are to oversee constitutionally mandated elections to local, provincial, and national government within the next 18 months.
The agreement to govern in this fashion was struck between their two parties, the MC and the Nepali Congress (NC), respectively, in order to topple the United Marxist Leninist party’s prime minister. K.P. Sharma Oli. Ironically, Oli came to power in somewhat similar fashion just nine months ago, when he bullied the NC’s Sushil Koirala out of office. To his credit, Oli resigned before a no-confidence motion against him by the MC-NC could pass in parliament, preserving a modicum of dignity of office. This drama unfolded after several months of jingoistic sound and fury by Oli, ultimately signifying almost nothing in terms of his government’s performance but a lot of ill will toward other Nepali political parties. For example, dialogue and negotiation with the Madheshi political parties was abandoned, earthquake relief and recovery efforts remained mired in bureaucratic and political turf wars, landslide and flood survivors were ignored, and transitional justice was treated even more perfunctorily.
A change in government leadership would be heartening in most countries when performance is so dismal, but in Nepal the novelty has worn off in the past 20-plus years of political gamesmanship, not least because the same individuals surface to lead government in an ever-tightening game of musical chairs. The tenure of government is ever shrinking along with declining performance, and no political party or political leader is above criticism. While this is the second time that Dahal will lead government, it could be the fourth time for Deuba. It took eight years for two consecutive constituent assemblies to decide on a constitution that remains bitterly contested by a third of Nepalis. Meanwhile, the effects of devastating earthquakes and an economic blockade have brought Nepal to the brink. Surely, policy stability and good governance cannot result from this sort of narrowly self-interested political practice.
There are legitimate concerns over the MC-NC agreement to coalesce in government now. While politics can make for strange bedfellows, these two parties and individuals were principal antagonists in the 1990s whose decisions are most directly traced to the civil war that cost 16,000 lives. Even if we can reconcile to their coalition now, we must accept that they have the least incentive to progress transitional justice in Nepal. On the matter of federalism, some easing in the very contentious issue of provincial boundary delineation can be expected, if only to show that the new coalition is more concerned about inclusion. However, real progress in constitutional implementation will be difficult to achieve without sustained dialogue with the myriad political and social justice interest groups over the next several months. That does not seem possible in the timeframes of each of the next two governments, which also means that subnational elections remain improbable.
What then to make of this victory of sorts for Pushpa Kamal Dahal? Does he revel in being prime minister for one month longer than he was previously as prime minister in 2008-2009 and step down in nine months as agreed? Or does this portend further unpleasant surprises for Nepal?
Based on past behavior, it would be reasonable to expect him to renege, although his top advisors aver that he is committed to honoring the agreement with Deuba. If he does not step down, let us hope that the NC makes a strategic calculation to stay in the coalition (in exchange for concessions, of course) instead of engaging in another round of destabilization. Regardless of what actually transpires in the months ahead, it is likely that politics at the national level in Nepal will be turbulent for at least 18 months with scant attention paid to developmental and other pressing needs in the country. If a constitutional crises surrounding mandatory elections is not averted by then, we can expect further instability. Instead of being mesmerized by all of this, the international community and other stakeholders in Nepal’s progress should soberly assess the credibility of commitment brought by short-lived governments at the national level. And, they should engage energetically and creatively in finding other opportunities to continue to help Nepal.
George Varughese is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Nepal. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.