The jockeying for leverage within CPN-UML, the third largest party in the last CA poll, has well and truly started in the lead up to its general convention in February, 2014. After Jhalanath Khanal emerged victorious over KP Oli in the last UML general convention in 2009, in what was a bitter chairmanship contest, the two camps started to drift apart. Following the general convention, Oli and senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal positioned themselves firmly against Khanal—particularly against his ‘soft stand’ on UPCN (Maoist)—a tactical move widely seen as an effort to cut the new chairman down to size. In 2011, the party had reluctantly endorsed Khanal’s PM candidacy despite his failure to garner a two-third majority in the CA, a condition set by UML central committee under pressure from the Oli-Nepal camp.
There is a great deal of intrigue surrounding the 2014 general convention, given that even Khanal’s backers for chairmanship from 2009 are not sure if he can win for the second time running. His main rival in 2009, Oli, meanwhile, has been dogged by poor health and the party rank and file seems divided over whether such a frail person should be given top leadership. Nepal, it is believed, nurtures his own hopes of chairmanship. Playing the kingmakers in 2014 will be party Vice-chairman Bamdev Gautam and General Secretary Ishwar Pokharel, and all three of the likely chairmanship contestants (Khanal, Oli and Nepal) will look to court them in the lead up to the general convention. It is in this backdrop that the UML central committee meeting starting Monday saw acrimonious exchanges between the Oli and Khanal factions over the standing committee’s decision to change work divisions of some key party leaders a few months ago.
At the Monday meet, several members close to Khanal strongly objected to the party´s decision to change work divisions while some other leaders loyal to Oli defended it. Until last year, the UML leadership and party rank and file were vertically divided, a division Khanal had managed to patch up to a degree after he proposed to elevate Oli to third position in the party hierarchy and settle other intra-party disputes through relevant party mechanisms. The reshuffling of work divisions was part of the same deal. Significantly, neither the Khanal nor the Oli faction commands a majority on its own in the party committees without support from Nepal and Pokharel.
It might be recalled that Nepali Congress, following its own general convention in 2010, has been bitterly divided between rival Sushil Koirala and Sher Bahadur Deuba camps. There is no doubt that the division has undercut the party’s influence in national polity. In UML’s context, it would be unfortunate if the state of acrimony between Oli and Khanal factions witnessed in the last few years resurfaces now, at a time when the party should be presenting a united front for it to be able to play a meaningful role in national polity.
The country’s fractured polity can ill afford yet another rupture in a major party. Often accused of operating in an ideological vacuum, UML already has a huge challenge as it looks to present itself as a credible communist force following the phoenix-like rise of the Maoists as a democratic party in the 2008 CA polls. We sincerely hope the party manages to reconcile its internal differences and will yet be able to play a meaningful part in trying to find a way out of the current impasse.