PM Koirala must learn to negotiate a tricky coalition and build institutional credibility.
Prime Minister Sushil Koirala finally managed to get a full-size cabinet, two weeks after he took the oath of office. Factional feuds within parties and complexities of inter-party cooperation and competition — mainly between Koirala’s Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) — were the irritants. More than that, it was Koirala’s initial obstinacy in not giving the home portfolio to the UML that delayed the process. When he realised such obstinacy in a coalition spelt his doom, he made a 180-degree turn.
The NC and UML are equal partners, with 10 berths each, but the UML has taken foreign affairs, energy, as well as home, with four smaller parties joining. Given the feuds within the UML and NC, Koirala’s ground is shaky. As it happens, political practices over the last seven years has made the PM’s authority weak.
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The UML standing committee’s meeting to decide on its ministers was frequently interrupted as senior leader and former PM Madhav Nepal refused to join. As for the NC, Koirala finally agreed to include four ministers from former PM Sher Bahadur Deuba’s rival faction. This meant denying berths to Koirala’s core loyalists. That makes his promised good governance and constitution-making a tightrope walk. It’s already feared that he might be one of the shortest-serving PMs in six years.
Building a wider understanding, if not a consensus, on constitution-making is a challenge. With the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) and the fragmented Madhes parties — forces at the centre of Nepal’s radical but not yet institutionalised transition to a republic, to federalism and secularism — out of the government, Koirala will surely be finding it hard to move on. Such fears, frustrations and the record of failure have often brought the royal regime — as the direct rule by then king Gyanendra for 14 months from February 2005 — back to the public discourse, but more as a referral point. The erosion of the state’s authority, Supreme Court verdicts not being honoured, embezzlement of developments funds, largescale corruption — all featuring regularly in the media, with evidence but without any action taken — only makes Gyanendra’s direct rule, as well as the regimes prior to that, now look more “law-based” and marked by the state’s visibility.
Not only was the judiciary’s independence compromised when Khil Raj Regmi continued to hold the post even after taking over as the executive chief but the entire justice system looks as discredited as the politics of the day. Regmi couldn’t return to the Supreme Court, despite wishing to complete his tenure as chief justice, and resigned. However, that hasn’t restored the apex court’s image.
Restoring the court’s credibility is a collective task, not Koirala’s alone. But the PM, known for not being communicative enough, will suffer when coalition partners flex their muscles. He has already shown himself to be immature. Following the practice of the last few years, each party in his coalition will designate its own “leader” in the cabinet and its ministers will be accountable to that person. To succeed, Koirala will have to “manage” individual leaders in his cabinet.
Given his temperament, and despite his bending over backwards to appease the UML, Koirala is not known for flexibility. That’s likely to invite crises sooner than later, and the much hoped for political stability will perhaps become a mirage. That is the toll the aberrations of the recent past have taken on the system.