It’s been a year of government consisting of five parties, all of them having their own ambitions and interests. Power sharing, both at the center and provinces, has been managed with relative ease. Even in the local elections, seat-sharing was achieved reasonably well, much to the chagrin of UML, and barring a few exceptions, each partner benefited from it.
The election date for the House of Representatives and the provincial assemblies has been announced after much ado. The next few months leading up to the election will witness a charged atmosphere where alliances will be cobbled up and broken, incendiary remarks will be shot at in a bid to gain one upmanship, promises ranging from relevant to ridiculous will be made to reassure the people. In Nepal, electoral rhetoric usually centers around 'desh banaune ra desh bigarne' and 'rashtrapremi ra rashtraghati' , while the more relevant issues like inflation and unemployment will take a backseat. New 'rashtrabadis' will enter the scene while the older ones will fall out of fashion.
This time around, the electoral environment is dull and dry compared to the election held in 2074, which took place in the wake of promulgation of the constitution leading to the Madhesh movement and the subsequent border blockade. KP Oli's obdurate stand against the blockade had propelled his party to the top of the electoral competition while Madhesh-based parties seemed the clear winners in Madhesh pradesh even before the results were announced. There were fewer parties and closely-knit alliances compared to now where opportunism has superseded ideology and has led to the spawning of several parties. Alliances are loose and most will depend on pre and post electoral stitching.
If the results of local elections are any indicator, one can say with some relief, the five-party alliance will coast through. But the competition is going to be stiff. That CPN-UML managed a respectable total despite going alone is proof of Oli's popularity. He still remains a force to reckon with despite betraying the people’s mandate by dissolving parliament twice in a matter of months owing to fratricidal strife inside the party.
Forming a coalition to defeat the UML is the most obvious but lazy idea. The ruling coalition led by the NC has reasons to believe they can together rid the country of the scourge called Oli. They successfully weaponized 'pratigaman' and forced Oli on the backfoot while also throwing his party out of power positions in six of the seven provinces. They managed the ratification of the contentious MCC and are on the verge of amending the controversial citizenship law. The coalition has also managed to entice some seasoned veterans from the UML who have joined the ranks of government and ganged up against Oli. But these tried and tested political faces coming together to oppose Oli can be a disastrous political recipe.
The media is rife with the news of the LSP and other newly-formed parties also joining the ruling coalition before election. The idea of a hold-all alliance, coming together of anyone opposed to the UML is counter-productive. It is impossible to achieve a harmonious merger of egos, ambitions and designs of all those with disparate ideologies and interests. Even if it happened, the cost of stitching together such an alliance would clearly outweigh its possible gains. It would turn out to be a sub-optimal coalition in terms of its efficacy in defeating the UML. Besides, it might help Oli play a lone warrior taking on an entire gang and go for counter-mobilization of his core vote bank.
However, to abandon the idea of alliance is to give up on the current quest for a coalition of the willing. The partners must be a selectively crafted coalition of the deserving. Those entering the coalition would have to show what they bring to the table. The filter would be the willingness to subordinate individual and party ambitions to the collective project.
The idea of unity can be successful only if it transcends beyond one time electoral alliance to a more enduring political union. The notion of non-UML parties forming a pre-election alliance for seat-sharing and vote-pooling and later demanding their share of the pie when the new government is formed is inherently fractious.
The coalition partners need to demonstrate political cohesion. The voters, especially those who might have got wary of Oli, do not doubt that the anti-Oli brigade will gang-up against him. What they doubt is whether these leaders would do so in a meaningful way. Considering the notoriously opportunistic level of politics in Nepal, voters may be cynical of this entire coalition politics. So the alliance needs to demonstrate unity of purpose, a shared agenda and not just a hastily drawn up common minimum program. This should inspire hope, an alternative approach to governance, the capacity to work together by subordinating differences.
While the need for a coalition to out-maneuver the UML cannot be overstated, it is certainly not sufficient. The disenchantment with Oli is real to an extent but it has not reached a point where people would vote for a lamp post to deprive him of power. The coalition partners are perceived to be incompetent, lacking in credibility who neither have messenger nor message to inspire confidence. Any unity that glosses over this lacunae is bound to magnify its own deficit and likely to fail in attracting new voters.
PM Deuba and Pushpa Kamal Dahal's role in directing the alliance in the right direction will be immense. Both have great command over their respective parties. The coalition will test their ability to prioritize tasks and weigh up the value of different options, to recognize the consequence of their action and pre-empt potential challenges and to persuade colleagues of pragmatic compromises that are necessary to keep the alliance moving without a stalemate.
It’s been a year of government consisting of five parties, all of them having their ambitions and interests. Power sharing, both at the center and provinces has been managed with relative ease. Even in the local elections, seat-sharing was achieved reasonably well, much to the chagrin of UML, and barring few exceptions, each partner benefited from it. Despite having caretaker status, the government has taken some bold decisions like ratification of the MCC and amendment of the citizenship law, which the Oli government, despite a majority, dare not touch. There have been difficult times for the coalition, like we saw during the ratification of the MCC that created sharp polarization. But the differences have been ably ironed out and the government seems on stable footing than was under Oli, where much of the time was spent on berating party members.
Though some mistakes have been made, like unnecessary pandering to the allies by changing some ministers mid-way to bring in new faces, these can be forgiven as a specific party problem and has hardly hampered the broader understanding in the coalition.
The Maoists’ partnership with the NC seems more natural compared to the UML. It could be due to the personal equation of the top leaders of both parties. Aligning with a party whose foundational values are democratic is relatively easier. Dahal's role as a king-maker is of immense importance. He can negotiate important ministerial berths for his party and help steer the country in the right direction. Working in an alliance also proves his democratic credentials and commitment toward a stable Nepal. This will gradually help him revitalize his party and regain the lost trust.
Deuba, on his part, has a messed up legacy. He has to act with magnanimity as much with other factions of his party as with the allies. If he is able to pull it successfully, he will have proved his statesmanship.