Nothing better expresses the state of Nepali politics than the question on everyone´s minds these days: What next? A dysfunctional right-centre coalition government has just survived a no-confidence motion brought against it by an equally dysfunctional left-right opposition. Since Nepal´s current “hung Parliament” has unsuccessfully tried every permutation possible with its collage of parties and fratricidal factions within parties, a sense of ennui shrouds the land. If there is one thing that Nepalis seem to be united on today, it is in the feeling that somehow, something, somewhere, will give.
This round of political drama started when Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, heading a clumsy coalition of left-wing rightists, right-wing centrists and regional opportunists, got wind of several far-right MPs of his own party secretly bolting over to his archrival within the party, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, to team up with right-wing communists to bring him down. In a lightning move, which took even his own coalition partners by surprise, he recommended dissolution of Parliament “since there is no possibility of it providing a stable government” and the holding of fresh elections.
Within hours of Thapa exercising his constitutional prerogative, the collage of far-right rightists, right-wing communists and, strangely, far-left communists were knocking at the gates of King Birendra´s palace asking him to exercise another constitutional prerogative that gave them the right to call for a special session of Parliament whose dissolution the prime minister had just recommended. The plot then started thickening.
Faced with contradictory constitutional claims, King Birendra decided to seek the legal advice of the Supreme Court, an action which has precipitated a political churning, the fallout of which will be evident in the days ahead. This move by the monarch was a break from the past when he had simply followed the advice of two previous prime ministers to dissolve the house and hold fresh election -although in the second instance when the prime minister was heading a minority government, the Supreme Court had overturned the monarch´s action and reinstated the parliament. This time, King Birendra was seen as playing favourites against left-wing rightists and right-wing centrists, giving credence to the belief of some that the right and left extremists have often served as Trojan horses for the Palace.
It has been remarked that when politics wobbles, politicians elsewhere prepare for elections while in Nepal they begin to prepare legal briefs. All of January, the country was at a standstill as lawyers aligned with different political factions debated in court which of the constitutional provisions had primacy – the prerogative of the prime minister to recommend dissolution or the right of a quarter of the MPs to call a special session of the House whenever they feel the urge. Sacrificing professional integrity to the winter winds, lawyers who had previously argued for the right of the prime minister now argued against it, and vice versa.
In a divided verdict in which senior judges over-ruled their own previous judgement, the Supreme Court recommended that the King ignore the advice of his prime minister and call a special session of the House to debate the no-confidence motion. The latest twist to the story is that Prime Minister Thapa, whose political guile has served him well since the Panchayat years, survived the no-confidence motion and now continues to clock in at his office at Singha Darbar, the secretariat.
The (not-so-) United Marxist Leninists, which forms the main leftist opposition, despite being united in the vote against the government, has split vertically since its party congress in January. The primary causes for this were a severe personality clash at the top, the Mahakali border river treaty with India, seats in the politburo, and arcane Marxist jargons used to cloak all these issues. So deep were these animosities that practically no communist MP thought it worthwhile to attend Parliament (and sit with comrades) during the debate on the no-confidence motion in the special session they themselves had called for.
Having survived the no-confidence motion, Prime Minister Thapa quickly retracted his earlier recommendation to dissolve the parliament “since there is no possibility of it providing a stable government”. He now said, “The situation has changed.” In these disturbed times, when coalitions are made and governments formed, only with the thought of earning corrupt income and ruling the roost during election time, all the primary actors seem to have emerged as losers. Thapa has kept his prime ministerial position, but finds himself confronted with a split in his already small party. His backer, Girija Prasad Koirala of the Nepali Congress, finds his hopes of heading a coalition government receding as fissures within his own party deepen.
The communists gambled and lost. Not only their hopes of getting their hands on the levers of the government but also their credibility as a responsible democratic force within the parliamentary system has crumbled. Indeed, it is widely believed that disappointed cadres of the UML have begun to drift towards the “people´s war” of the Maoists as the only other alternative that is ideologically satisfying to them.
By failing to address constitutional contradictions, the Supreme Court, the legal profession, as well as the Kathmandu-based cognoscenti and journalists have failed to inspire hope or provide societal leadership. King Birendra, who has till now played a more or less correct role as constitutional head, has,by ignoring the advice of an elected parliamentary prime minister, allowed himself to get drawn into the vortex of politics. He would have done well to keep out of it.Because the middle ground in Nepali politics is today incapacitated by self-inflicted wounds, the extreme left and the extreme right can be trusted to clamour louder and more aggressively in the days ahead.