ON March 6, Nepal's three-party coalition collapsed after dragging on precariously for 17 months. And surprisingly, it was not the Opposition but his own party, the Nepal Congress (NC), that brought about Prime Minister Sher Baha-dur Deuba's downfall. The irony is that he needn't even have taken the confidence vote. Two disgruntled NC partymen—Chakra Bahadur Shahi and Deepak Jung Shah—abstained from the crucial vote of confidence to leave Deuba two votes short of the 103 mark required to win the vote in the 205-seat House of Representatives.
The country's search for a stable government continues with King Birendra's acceptance of the Prime Minister's resignation. Various possibilities are being explored by all three major political parties: the NC, its coalition partner Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) and the main Opposition party, the CPN (UML)—the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist).
Theoretically the 88-seat NC can cobble together another combine with its current coalition partner RPP, and seek a fresh mandate in Parliament with a new leader. An alternative for the Congress would be to join forces with the CPN (UML)—as has been hinted at by supporters of party president Girija Prasad Koirala, who oppose Deuba's " RPP-appeasing tactics".
But, observers say, the most likely combination is between the CPN (UML) and the 19-member RPP, a one-time votary of monarchy. A five-member RPP faction enjoys close ties with the CPN but the rebels, who voted against their own government, will first have to woo their 14 other party-men. Moreover, it's unlikely that an RPP-CPN alliance will be viewed favourably by two smaller communist parties, whose support would be crucial for its survival. "Within the given parliamentary equation, no government is safe," says analyst Sridhar Khatri. "It's a stalemate."
On the surface, mid-term polls seem to be the only way out. But constitutionally the King has to invite the person who commands a majority with the support of two or three parties. In the absence of such a leader, the leader of the single largest party has to be invited to form the government. In either case, the new government has to prove its majority within a month. If it fails then elections have to be held within six months. At present, CPN (UML) President Man Mohan Adhikari, heading the single largest party with 90 members in Parliament, is the frontrunner in the race to form a new government, expected to be in by early next week. But he will need the RPP support to prevent mid-term polls.
When Deuba fell, preparations were under way for Indian Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda's visit to Nepal in mid-March. Nepal's ambassador to India, Lok Raj Baral, was to leave for Kathmandu on March 7, to prepare for the visit.
"The fall is a welcome relief to many," says Khatri. "The coalition was rudderless." In a desperate bid for survival, Prime Minister Deuba had repeatedly reshuffled and expanded his cabinet—the final count of which stood at 47. During the no-confi -dence vote late last year, the government had resorted to some dirty tactics—kidnapping and bribing MPs. Though it survived the resultant censure, it was pushed to the minority position.
Observers say the defection of the two NC MPs was in retaliation to this. "The recent vote wasn't as ugly as the December 24 no-confidence vote," says Khatri. Since its first election in 1991 after the restoration of democracy, three governments have been in office. Deuba had come to power in August 1995 when the minority communist government was voted out of office, paving the way for an NC–RPP-Nepal Sadbhavna Party combine.
"It will take some time before we get a clear picture," Adhikari said after the government's fall. Speculation is rife whether the communists will continue from where they left 17 months ago, with populist measures aimed at rural areas. "The communists have always been more organised and disciplined than any other party," says Khatri. "But they still haven't been able to show how they will carry their party interests and democratic commitment hand in hand."