Nepal’s main opposition, the CPN-UML, which is also the largest political party in Parliament, is holding its 10th national convention on November 26-28 in Chitwan.
The convention is taking place against the backdrop of two key political events that are significant to the party.
Three years ago, party chair KP Sharma Oli was leading a nearly two-thirds majority, as it had won the 2017 elections under an alliance with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre). The two communist forces had merged in May 2018 to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). But a series of events, most of them prompted by Oli, led to the NCP’s dissolution in March this year, courtesy of a Supreme Court order. Ultimately, Oli’s government fell on July 13 this year, after two House dissolution moves in a span of six months—in December last year and May this year.
Second, on August 25, the UML faced a split, with Madhav Kumar Nepal, Oli’s bete noire, forming a new party—CPN (Unified Socialist).
Oli, however, has been dismissive of the fact that Nepal has formed a new party.
“Some people who betrayed their own party and sided with opposition forces to topple their own government were expelled by the party,” Oli told a news conference on Tuesday. “They managed to form a group with the help of some elements. That’s not even a party.”
So enraged is the UML with Madhav Nepal that it has not even invited the CPN (Unified Socialist) to the party’s 10th congress.
Oli who has emerged as the numero uno leader in the party—through the statute convention held on October 1-3, he managed to portray his cult personality—has been trying to become a consensus leader through the 10th convention.
He is also in a bid to install “his choice of leaders” in various office bearer positions including senior vice-chair, vice-chair, general secretary, deputy general secretary and secretaries.
It, however, looks easier said than done.
Bhim Rawal, a current vice-chair, has announced that he would also contest for the post of party chair.
“I have announced my candidacy along with my vision to lead the party. Since the party has restricted forming a panel to contest the elections, I will contest in my individual capacity,” Rawal told the Post. “If there was no restriction, I could have come up with a panel of candidates for all officer bearer positions.”
Oli on Tuesday, however, not only countered Rawal’s candidacy but made light of it saying Rawal does not pose any challenge to him.
“We should not misinterpret things. Rawal has not posed any challenge to me,” said Oli, taking a dig at Rawal in his typical tongue-in-cheek style. “It was his loving suggestion that he would vie for the post if I was tired of working hard for the party.”
Oli also said that he will not put any pressure on any leader not to contest the polls.
“UML is a democratic party and there won’t be any pressure on anyone,” Oli said. “If I decided to contest for chair I would welcome any one to contest against me, which is a usual process.”
Rawal’s candidacy, however, is seen by many as his bargain for the post of senior vice-chair. Rawal was one of the leaders who had sided with Madhav Nepal to launch a struggle against Oli in the UML. But Rawal decided to remain in the UML when Nepal formed his own party.
And if he sticks to his announcement of contesting for the post of party chair, he can at least claim that Oli could not get elected unopposed.
Rawal is one of the leaders who had decided to stay in the UML despite initially siding with Madhav Nepal as part of their struggle against Oli.
Ghanashyam Bhusal is another leader who is also seeking to create some space for himself in the party as he too has been alienated by Oli for opposing the party chair.
Bhusal, currently the deputy vice-chair in the party, has not spoken publicly about his intention to fight for any particular post. But leaders close to him say he would vie for the post of either general secretary or vice-chair.
While Oli looks confident about managing leaders like Rawal and Bhusal, who make a dissenting faction within the UML, he is set to face a challenge of taking care of other leaders who are also aspiring for various posts.
Current General Secretary Ishwar Pokhrel, Standing Committee members Subas Chandra Nembang and Ram Bahadur Thapa are some of them.
Nembang told the Post that he would work until the last moment to ensure that Oli becomes unanimous chair of the party, but if that could not happen, he would contest for the post of senior vice-chair as per the suggestions from his colleagues.
Standing Committee member Surendra Pandey, who had lost to Pokhrel for the post of general secretary during the ninth general convention with just six votes, has also expressed his interest in either general secretary or above–vice-chair or senior vice-chair, post.
As per the party statute, UML will now have 15 office bearers including a chairman, five vice-chairs including one senior vice-chair, one general secretary, one deputy general secretary and seven secretaries.
Even for the post of four vice-chair positions, there are too many leaders in the fray, including Asta Laxmi Shakya, Ram Bahadur Thapa, Yubaraj Gyawali, Raghuji Pant and Subas Nembang are some of them.
According to multiple leaders the Post spoke to, Pokhrel will most probably secure the post of senior vice-chair and if that happens, Ram Bahadur Thapa, Subas Nembang and Asta Laxmi Shakya could become vice-chairs.
Oli is in favour of elevating Shankar Pokhrel to the post of general secretary. That Pokhrel is Oli’s preferred leader was seen also during the statute congress when he was asked to read out the party chair’s political document.
If Shankar Pokhrel were to be elevated to the post of general secretary, Oli needs to “adjust” current Deputy General Secretary Bishnu Poudel as one of the vice-chairs. But if that does not happen, Poudel could become the general secretary and Pokhrel could become deputy general secretary.
Poudel was elevated to the post of general secretary when the UML and the Maoist Centre had merged to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
For the seven secretary positions there is also no dearth of aspirants, including four women leaders—Binda Pandey, Shiva Maya Tumbahangphe, Radha Gyawali and Padma Aryal.
Among them, Pandey is eying the post of deputy general secretary.
From among men, there are existing secretaries–Yogesh Bhattarai, Gokarna Bista, Bhim Acharya, Prithvi Subba Gurung, and Pradeep Gyawali–who are also eying general secretary and deputy general secretary positions, both of which have only one seat each, and new faces including Mahesh Basnet, Gokul Baskota, Hikmat Karki, Bhanubhakta Dhakal and Khagaraj Adhikari want the secretaries.
Top Bahadur Rayamajhi and Lekhraj Bhatta, two Maoist leaders who defected to the UML, are also expecting secretary positions and wish to get elected through consensus because they have less than 200 convention representatives who support them which will be insufficient in the event of voting.
Since consensus is not possible, a formal contest is likely among some leaders.
Oli, however, called candidacies and elections “a democratic process”.
“Consensus and agreement and unity is important but while ensuring them we cannot undermine democratic exercise,” Oli said at the interaction with the journalists.
Around 2,279 representatives are participating in the UML’s 10th congress, which the party plans to make as grand as possible, with guests invited from the country and abroad.
According to Oli, with the national convention, UML wants to spread the message that the party has become stronger despite the split and despite losing the government. There has been no effect on the party and rather it has emerged as a unified force after some “bad” people have left, said Oli.
The UML, however, also faces charges of being a party without any ideological base.
Political analysts say the upcoming convention will be all about electing leadership rather than becoming a platform for informed debate and discussions on party’s ideologies.
“The party’s statute congress focused only on creating Oli’s personality cult. It even failed to discuss its massive failure–it lost the government and faced groupism and a split,” said Narayan Dhakal, a political analyst. “I think this convention will be the last in the party in terms of its political and ideological erosion.”
But, Dhakal, who was with UML earlier, said the party will continue to remain strong because the social class the party represents is still powerful.
“Oli wanted to elect the leadership through consensus but he is now in confusion, as that is not going to happen,” Dhakal said.
The UML is also seeing the convention as an exercise and preparation for the upcoming polls.
While local elections are around four months, provincial and federal elections should be held within one year from now.
During the 2017 polls, Oli’s party had the support of the Maoist Centre. But this time, a significant chunk has left the party and it has to fight the election against a five-party alliance.
There have also been talks about the possibility of a unity or an alliance among left parties.
On Tuesday, Oli did not rule out such a possibility, but as is his wont, he made a roundabout statement.
“In Nepal, [the] genuine communist party remains united,” said Oli. “It’s just that we should not unite with imposters in the garb of communists.”