Murari Sharma: New Prime Minister’s Challenges

Prime Minister Sushil Koirala has finally formed the cabinet. It gives hope that the country will have a democratic constitution within a year, as pledged, and a stable government. I believe the administration is well-placed to deliver, but it would be premature to be confident that it will.

A coalition of the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), this government enjoys nearly a two-thirds majority, in the Constituent Assembly, which is sufficient to approve the new constitution. Besides, the two parties are not too far apart on the two most contentious issues -– federalism and form of government — faced by the CA I.

While they might have some differences, both coalition partners support economically viable multi-identity states in federal Nepal. A compromise had eluded the CA I because the UCPN (Maoist), then the largest party, had stood for ethnic states in the hills and the Madheshi parties had fought for a geographical state in the entire Terai. They did not have the math on their side.

On the form of government, the NC, the largest in the current CA, is wedded to the parliamentary system. The UML, the second largest, supports executive power shared by president and prime minister, as in France. The two could agree on either model. Failing that, a popularly elected prime minister and a president elected by the national and state legislatures could be a possible compromise.

Because of its strength, the coalition has the ability to offer a stable government. If the current Tory-LibDem coalition government in Britain is any guide, such administration does not have to be unstable or ineffective at all.

However, it could be a huge mistake to assume that Koirala’s sail from here will be smooth and easy. The Maoist and ethnic parties will fight to the hilt for ethnic states and the Madheshi parties will struggle for a geographical province. Both these groups will use the house and the streets to block the NC-UML’s economically viable multi-ethnic states.

External influence will also come into play and make the task inordinately complex. The Madheshi parties enjoy sympathy of the southern neighbor for their demand. While the northern neighbor is apprehensive about ethnic states, Western donors support them.

The traditional rivalry and competition between the NC and UML is likely to come in the way of the statute and stability, for several reasons. First, the NC is reluctant to go for the election of the president and vice-president before the statute is promulgated. But the UML wants it immediately. This issue can pull the NC and UML apart.

It leads to the second reason. The UML’s KP Oli, parliamentary party leader, and the NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Paudel are desperate to become prime minister. They could betray Koirala at the first hint of his weakness and try to dislodge him, which will accentuate the factional rifts in both parties and lead the NC to its political suicide.

In fact, Oli and Deuba tried to torpedo Koirala soon after he was elected prime minister. Though the 7-point agreement between the NC and UML does not commit the Home Ministry to the UML, Oli threatened to pull out of the accord and stay out of government if his party did not get that portfolio. Deuba held back the names of his supporters for the cabinet, hoping that he could throw his hat in the ring if the UML stayed out.

There are some other contentious issues as well. For instance, the cabinet lacks inclusiveness. Ethnic groups, women and dalits are woefully unrepresented or under-represented. Also, there are grumblings in both coalition partners about some districts and groups over represented and others non-represented.

Although in bad taste, such conflicts are integral to politics whose goal is to acquire and retain power. In power games, often brutal and bloody tactics are pursued. Countries have waged wars for power. Princes have killed their sovereign fathers for it. Generals have incarcerated and killed their political masters. Any effort to outmaneuver one’s opponent or competitor is the kindest of all these strategies.

Unmarried and free from family obligations and temptations, Sushil Koirala could maintain his personal integrity. But the question is whether he could be gutsy and effective to keep his alliance partners clean, take fearless action against those who breach the line, retain the support of friends, make new allies, blunt the attacks of foes, and deliver. It is a big challenge.

More so in view of Koirala’s limited strength and experience. His fractious party does not have a majority in the house. His pick of ministers from the NC has made several of his colleagues unhappy. He has never been a minister and never actively led any organization. He became his party’s president by default. When Girija Prasad Koirala, his cousin brother and de facto party president died, he was acting president.

If Sushil Koirala can deliver the new statute within a year and stable government until the next election, his party will be rewarded with victory; he may continue as prime minister after the elections, even though he has promised to quit. If he cannot fulfill his promises, voters will pummel him and his party, as they did the Maoists in the recent ballots.

Often arrogant and irresponsible, the Maoists tried to write a hybrid of ethnic-communist constitution and failed. Governments were frequently changed. So voters punished the Maoists and their collaborators in other parties.

Sushil Koirala’s success will depend on his capacity and skills to learn fast on his job, to prevent his colleagues and opponents from pulling him down, and to get the best out of his competitors and opponents. If he can deliver the constitution and stable government, he would be remembered as one of the most successful prime ministers of Nepal.

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