ON December 24, Nepal's beleaguered Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba survived the second vote of no-confidence in a year. But this time around, the Nepali Congress leader's democratic credentials are being questioned: the Opposition has accused his 15-month-old government of doling out huge amounts of money to members of Parliament to keep them away on voting day. Some MPs were reportedly packed off to foreign countries as a safety measure lest they changed their minds and voted against the government.
The no-confidence motion fell just two votes short of the 103-mark required to pull down the government. Buoyed by the victory, however thin, the prime minister told newspersons the country had staved off another mid-term election—the second one in as many years. But analysts and Opposition claim the win was a sham and that the possibility of another snap poll still looms large.
They allege that despite all the dirty tricks the government resorted to, Deuba managed an unimpressive 84 votes in the 205-member House of Representatives, the lower house of Parliament—against 101 by the Opposition. After the vote, the Opposition petitioned the King to intervene, stating that the three-party coalition had lost its legitimacy and that it was unconstitutional to allow the prime minister, who no longer enjoyed Parliament's confidence, to continue in office.
"The government's trouble is hardly over yet," points out Sridhar Khatri, a political analyst. Even Deuba concedes that a lot depends on the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), his coalition partner. After months of internal wrangling, things came to a head when nine RPP MPs crossed the floor to vote against their own government. The RPP wasn't the only ruling party to have a split vote. A Nepal Sadbhavana Party (NSP)—the other coalition partner—MP defied the party whip to vote for the censure motion.
The RPP feud dates back to 1991, when two of its factions merged in the wake of the first democratic elections held in 30 years. In that election, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist)—CPN(UML)—fared very well. In contrast, the RPP groups—both headed by former prime ministers—managed to win only four parliamentary seats.
However, by 1994, the public disenchantment with both the Nepali Congress and the CPN(UML) surfaced, manifesting in a dramatic improvement in the RPP's showing in the November byelections. The 19-seat RPP, which had till then kept its internal differences at bay, started to show signs of a rift. "The RPP lacks cohesion and party spirit," says Chandra Prakash Mainali, CPN(UML) MP. "Both intra-and extra-party divisive forces are beginning to take their toll on it now."
No sooner had the RPP joined the three-party coalition last year than it started moving in two opposite directions. The nationalist faction, led by the party's parliamentary leader, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, favo-ured an alliance with the communists; while the liberal lobby, headed by party chairman Surya Bahadur Thapa, wanted the alliance with the centrist Nepali Congress to continue.
"Neither group is willing to budge. The only way out is through a majority decision," points out Kamal Thapa, a Chand loyalist who resigned as minister for Local Development early December, citing differences with the Nepali Congress-led government. Chand has ignored the party president Surya Bahadur's appeal to regroup for the upcoming local polls and by-elections. In fact, he has set a pre-condition for talks—that the party boss reinstate six central committee members who were sacked for refusing to back the government. "The RPP has to be run democratically, not on the whims of a single man," says the former minister.
As of now, Chand, who is expected to head the proposed alliance with the CPN(UML), enjoys greater support in party echelons, including the 41-member executive body.
With only 85 MPs in the lower house, the Nepali Congress is in a corner. "Deuba has few options now," says Mainali. Four constituencies, including the all-important Kathmandu-1, go to polls in mid-January. A victory will catapult the Nepali Congress as the largest party in Parliament, edging out the CPN(UML)which currently has 87 seats.
Time is running out for Deuba. The winter session of Parliament begins in January. "I think the prime minister, despite his thick skin, will be forced to step down then," says Mainali.
Deuba still has his last card left: that of mid-term polls. But analysts say he is reluctant to announce elections. First, because he is not sure whether the Nepali Congress will come out on top; and second, he doesn't know whether he will be offered the prime ministership—even if it wins the election.