How UML convention got mired in Oli’s chutzpah and hubris

How UML convention got mired in Oli’s chutzpah and hubris

When leaders of the CPN-UML, Nepal’s largest party, its members and cadres descended on Chitwan on Friday for their 10th national congress, many were convinced that the three-day jamboree was an exercise for the upcoming elections and that the proceedings would end after fulfilling some technicalities. On the face of it, the convention was to end on Sunday by electing a new leadership for the next five years.

But as they there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, the UML convention turned into a complete mess–largely because of party chair KP Sharma Oli’s chutzpah and ill-concealed ambition to become an uncontested leader.

In the name of electing the new leadership on the basis of consensus, Oli tried to have a set of leaders of his choice in all key positions of the office bearers. At his behest, a Central Committee meeting late on Friday night revised the statute, adopted by the statute convention in the first week of October, to increase the number of office bearers from 15 to 19 and the number of Central Committee members from 225 to 301.

But some of the leaders from Oli’s own coterie refused to yield, leading to confusion. Saturday’s closed session authorised Oli to pick office bearers and members of the Central Committee, in what insiders said undermined the democratic right of 2,175 delegates who are in Chitwan to vote to elect the new leadership.

“What I believe is that the public won’t trust our party and the leaders who block the democratic process,” Bhim Rawal, who has announced his candidacy against Oli for the post of party chair, told the Post over the phone from Chitwan. “Not allowing leaders to compete using different tacticses is a very dangerous trend… it’s undemocratic and objectionable.”

Until 2009’s general convention, the UML practised centralised leadership with a powerful general secretary, who exercised executive power, and a ceremonial chairperson. However, the Butwal general convention in 2009 adopted the principle of collective leadership, inducting vice-chairpersons, deputy general secretaries and secretaries. The objective was to limit the sole authority of the executive head and make the party take decisions collectively by a group of office bearers.

The 2014 national congress which elected KP Sharma Oli as party chair, however, retained the provision from the 2009 convention adding a few secretary positions.

All the positions were decided through direct voting by the representatives. Now when the UML is holding its 10th convention, it looks like Oli is in a bid to scrap voting and select leadership as per his wish, something many describe as an authoritarian style of running the party.

“There is nothing to talk about collective leadership in the UML now. Our party had not seen such a self-centered leader ever,” said Ghanashyam Bhusal, who had immediately objected to the proposal by Bishnu Poudel on Saturday evening to authorize Oli to make a list of leaders for the positions of office bearers and Central Committee members.

That Oli would try to bulldoze his decisions during the party’s national congress was somewhat apparent during the statute convention as well. The statute convention in Godavari revolved around Oli and his political document was endorsed almost unopposed.

When Oli arrived in Chitwan on Friday, he appeared to be confident that he would be able to get a new leadership of his choice, ignoring some feeble voices from his opponents.

But things got messy when some leaders considered close to him stuck to their claims. Though Oli’s choice for the post of senior vice chair is Ishwar Pokhrel, Subas Nembang refused to budge.

Similarly, for the one general secretary post, Bishnu Poudel and Shankar Pokhrel are in the race. While Poudel is said to be Oli’s preferred choice for the post, managing Shankar Pokhrel is also a must.

For the six vice-chair posts and seven secretary posts also, there are too many aspirants.

Insiders say Oli cannot have a cake and eat it too. He wants continued allegiance of leaders while seeking to block them from competing for various positions. According to them, the top leader can earn respect and loyalty only when he or she allows others to compete and challenge the leadership.

“The consensus idea itself is against the spirit of the People’s Multiparty Democracy which is the soul of our party,” said Bhusal. “The leadership is working in a narrow interest. This will not do good to our party.”

After failing to reach consensus, the closed session that was supposed to conclude on Saturday continued on Sunday as well. A meeting of the presidium consisting of Oli, Rawal, Asta Laxmi Shakya, Ram Bahadur Thapa, Top Bahadur Rayamajhi, Lal Babu Pandit, Ishwar Pokhrel, Subas Nembang, Yubaraj Gyawali, Chhabilal Bishwakarma and Goma Devkota, started late in the night.

Leaders said Oli came to the meeting with a consensus proposal.

In a bid to get the convention over by selecting the leadership “unanimously” Oli made one more bid, offering Rawal, Nembang and Poudel the post of vice-chair. It meant senior vice-chair post for Ishwar Pokhrel and general secretary post for Shankar Pokhrel.

Rawal earlier on Sunday evening told the Post that he was not going to backtrack on his decision to fight for the post of party chair.

“I won’t accept any position granted by anyone. I have already announced that I will contest for the party’s chair post,” said Rawal. “If they do not allow me to contest, there won’t be any significance of this convention which is being held only to elect the party leadership.”

Rawal said the leaders and the party will lose the moral ground to preach democratic process if they do not follow it within the party.

Those close to Oli have defended the party chair’s attempt to pick the leadership through consensus, saying a majority of the party leaders and cadres want the same. Competition among leaders would give rise to rivalry and factionalism, according to them.

“All of our representatives were selected on the basis of consensus as per the wish of the leadership,” Krishna Gopal Shrestha, a leader close to Oli, told the Post. “If 2,175 representatives could be picked through consensus, why not the central leadership?”

Observers, however, say competition and elections are the essence of democracy.

Surendra KC, who holds a PhD in communist parties of Nepal, said barring competition is against the spirit of People’s Multiparty Democracy which the UML claims to be its guiding principle.

The statute convention held in October had adopted the ideology propounded by the late Madan Bhandari, the party’s former general secretary.

“It envisions free competition within the party and in national politics,” said KC. “In the name of consensus, Oli is trying to practise totalitarianism.”

Oli’s authoritarian tendencies had come to surface when he was leading the government until mid-July this year. In his bid to control power, Oli undermined the constitution, constitutionalism and rule of law and dissolved the House of Representatives twice. The Supreme Court, however, restored the House on both occasions. While overturning his second decision to dissolve the House, the Supreme Court even ousted him from office.

Observers say Oli’s authoritarian streak is once again on display in the ongoing party convention.

Rajendra Maharjan, a political commentator, said communists are known for practising collective leadership, but the UML has become an individual-centric party.

“Even after losing a powerful government and seeing his party split, Oli continues to show his authoritarian tendencies,” said Maharjan. “The root cause of the present crisis in his party is his hubris.”

After all the efforts to find consensus failed, the party decided to start the election process on Monday morning.

“Nominations will be filed tomorrow morning,” said Bijay Subba, chair of the Central Election Committee of the party. “Voting will take place after completing all the procedures.”

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