Despite formal and informal talks, a deal on power-sharing continued to elude Nepal’s two biggest political forces, the ruling Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and principal opposition, Nepali Congress (NC). With the NC gearing up to launch a movement demanding Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s resignation from Sunday, the political polarisation is set to deepen.
Both parties have reached an agreement to hold new polls for a second Constituent Assembly (CA) next year. But differences persist on the leadership of the election government.
On Friday morning, Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ met NC president Sushil Koirala. Informed Maoist sources told The Hindu that Mr Prachanda made a three-part offer. If the NC joined the current government led by PM Bhattarai, they could pick the portfolios of their choice, including the home ministry; it could also appoint its nominee for a key constitutional position, either the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) or the head of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA); and Mr Koirala could chair a High-Level Political Mechanism.
Mr Koirala turned down the offer and instead reiterated the demand that NC be given leadership of the government. A senior NC leader, who did not wish to be identified, confirmed that such an offer was made, and said, “I don’t see a chance of us joining this government. The Maoists unilaterally announced CA elections. NC has taken a position, and it will be difficult to back-track now.”
Last week, key Maoist and NC negotiators who were involved in the drafting of the 12 point understanding between parliamentary parties and the then rebels in 2005 tried to revive the politics of consensus. On Thursday, Mr Prachanda, PM Bhattarai, NC general secretary Krishna Sitaula, former CA member Shekhar Koirala, and former NC MP Amresh Kumar Singh met at the PM’s residence.
The Maoists put forth out their reasons for claiming leadership. A senior party leader said, “We were the biggest force in the last CA. Constitutionally, the government was elected on the floor of the house and cannot be replaced. We have completed the peace process. And if moderates like us are humiliated, the extreme left forces will become stronger.”
NC negotiators proposed Sushil Koirala as an alternative PM candidate, and spoke of the party’s ‘credible’ track record in holding ‘free and fair’ polls. The Maoists have refused to accept NC’s leadership unless it agrees on contentious constitutional issues.
President Ram Baran Yadav has encouraged these discussions. After reports of presidential ‘coup’ surfaced, he and PM Bhattarai had a series of meetings which both sides termed as ‘cordial’.
Dr Yadav has reiterated that he would act only according to the ‘advice of all parties’. In one of the meetings, according to a senior PMO source, the two talked ‘as individuals, not the president and PM’, and reflected on how to bring back the journey that began with the 12 point pact back to track. A presidential advisor said that Dr Yadav would have no problem if there was a political consensus on Baburam Bhattarai leading the unity government.
But this is not the case yet, with the opposition sticking to its stance. Some have floated the option of a ‘neutral PM’, with a political cabinet. Mr Prachanda has spoken of this publicly in the past, but PM Bhattarai is understood to believe that a person without a ‘political base’ would not be able to govern. This, he has told interlocutors, would only erode the legitimacy of the political class, and invite the active involvement of security forces in administration.
NC and UML have not yet officially supported the idea of a neutral PM, but an NC leader told The Hindu, “It is not the best option, but what is the alternative?” The names of senior civil society figure, Daman Nath Dhungana, and several former chief justices are doing the rounds as possible figures. But differences between parties on who would get key portfolios, particularly home, are expected to surface even if there is pact on the PM.
Resolving the deadlock has assumed added urgency since a broad deal on government, election system, filling in vacancies in the Election Commission, and clearing the legal and constitutional hurdles for polls are essential by mid-December in order to hold elections next spring.