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It is already evident that Sushil Koirala’s days as prime minister will not be easy.
A constitution within a year, a clean and efficient government. These were the oft repeated slogans of the last five years that leader and after leader promised, but failed to deliver on. They hardly enjoy public trust for the simple reason that each of the four elected prime ministers, in as many years, failed. Sushil Koirala repeated the same pledge when he was elected PM by the parliament on Monday, securing more than a two third majority in the House. An agreement on power-sharing between Koirala’s Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) puts him in a comfortable position, but a cautious “wait and watch” approach rather than unrealistic hopes would be the way to judge the new PM.
Meanwhile, the euphoria of victory faded somewhat on Tuesday, as the UML boycotted the swearing-in ceremony, accusing Koirala of not honouring the power-sharing agreement, which means not allocating plum portfolios. UML vice chairman Bamdev Gautam, who was hoping to be appointed deputy PM with the home portfolio along with the PM, announced from a different platform, “We will not let them (government) in peace.”
Factional feuds within the NC and UML and the refusal of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) to join the government are early indications that Koirala’s days in office will not be easy. But no one thought trouble would come so soon, and so openly. The fact that Koirala has not allocated the home portfolio yet means he may still hand it to the UML, if it becomes a question of his government’s survival. But for the public, relations between the partners are already strained.
This shows the continuation of the power-centric politics that had come in the way of constitution-writing by the first Constituent Assembly (CA), which necessitated this new one with the promise by leaders of the major parties that they would not “repeat the history of failure”. Koirala reiterated that pledge on Monday, showing he had not forgotten it. But he was not setting the one-year deadline of his own will or because he has enough self-confidence. It was because the UML refused to give him more time, with the message that if he failed, as the second largest party, it would be the UML’s right to succeed him.
Koirala, despite having spent more than 50 years in politics and many of those in the crusade for democracy, maintained a low profile throughout. However, in the post-1990 phase after the advent of democracy, he had donned a different hat. He was perceived more as a “backroom boy”, a manipulator, a poor communicator and a dominant advisor to G.P. Koirala, the all-powerful NC leader. His lack of ministerial experience could bring his leadership under suspicion regarding his ability to deliver. After all, he will be held directly accountable for anything that goes wrong hereafter. Apart from his background devoid of experience, the delicate political circumstances of the moment — an unpredictable UML, hostile Maoists, non-committal Madhesi groups and the presence of the pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal as the fourth largest party — will give him a headache in office as the 37th PM of Nepal.
Power cuts for 12 hours a day, the resumption of fasting by a Gandhian medical professor demanding the insulation of medical training institutes from politicisation and corruption, especially in the process of granting affiliation, and a surge of solidarity in the fraternity, etc are issues that will put to Koirala’s leadership to the test immediately. The pro-UML vice chancellor of the Tribhuvan University is apparently in favour of granting affiliation to new colleges, even if that means crushing Govinda K.C., the man on the fast, with state forces — something that would be easier if the UML got home. At least two medical colleges controlled by UML leaders are awaiting affiliation. “Around Rs 150 million changes hands in providing affiliation to one private medical college,” says Sashank Koirala, an NC legislator who has endorsed the fast.
While the UCPN-M sits in the opposition, the breakaway Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) continues to argue that “the CA has lost its relevance and a solution should be found from outside through an ‘all-side initiative’ and not from within the House.” The CPN-M, led by Mohan Baidya, has also given a call to UCPN-M chief Prachanda to walk away from the House and lead that initiative. What will the UCPN-M do if the NC-UML combine continues to deny it space in government and undermines its role in the political process? The two parties declined to give the speaker’s post to the UCPN-M, which will go to the UML now as part of the power-sharing exercise. “We will continue to play the role of opposition and extend support to the government in the constitution-making process,” Prachanda said, after his party’s 80 members voted against Koirala.
The only positive development was the resignation of Khil Raj Regmi, the chief of the electoral government, from the chief justice’s post that he had concurrently held for 11 months. The Bar and several civil society groups were opposed to his return to the court. But the embittered relationship between the two partners in government has killed hopes at the outset. Running a clean government and ensuring coordination among parties in writing the constitution look more difficult now, if not impossible. Koirala has to either stoop now or invite a very hostile situation for himself.