Showdown in the Nepali Congress Party

Eighty-four year old Girija Koirala is called, only partly in jest, ‘the uncrowned king’ because of his vast influence in Nepali politics. The four-term prime minister is president of the Nepali Congress, once the dominant party here but much reduced in stature since the April 2008 elections that gave Nepal’s once-rebel Maoists the largest voice in the constituent assembly.

Koirala continues to dominate his party and remains a major player in Nepali politics, but the party’s poor electoral showing has raised internal opposition that limits his power. Despite two recent slights from Nepal’s prime minister that angered Koirala enough to discuss publicly his desire to unseat the PM, he has been able to do no more than make threats.

He may just not care enough, either, at this point. Koirala’s age and ill health are showing, and he appears to be concentrating on intra-party matters rather than national issues.

Koirala’s primary goal is ensuring that the party leadership passes to his daughter, Sujata Koirala. The first of the PM’s slights was failing to elevate Sujata, currently Nepal’s foreign minister, to deputy prime minister. This, according to Koirala loyalists, was to happen before the prime minister’s trip to India last month. It didn’t, and Sujata opted not to participate in the trip, claiming that she was ill.

While Sujata Koirala is a capable politician, she has minimal high-level experience and, apparently, very little support within the party, apart from close Koirala associates. Several party leaders have been outspoken in their criticism of the heavy-handed attempt to get her the DPM post and of the political indisposition that caused her to stay away from the important India visit.

Other top NC leaders remain mum on the issue, which is a part of the greater question of whether the party will continue to be dominated by a single leader or share power more broadly. That will be the main issue at the next party convention in March 2010.

Girija Koirala is expected to step down then, and he hopes to pass the all-powerful party presidency to his daughter. But most of the other party leaders favor sharing power. It’s not that they object in principle to centralized power as long as they wield it. But none of them is willing to see a rival control the party as Girija has for 13 years.

And so the party’s central committee is discussing changes that would make the presidency and one party vice-presidency elected offices – another vice-president would be appointed by the president. A plurality of other top posts would also become elected offices, and a majority of the party’s central working committee would be elected too, including one-third to be chosen by regional party bodies.

The result would be collective leadership and, proponents say, a more democratic party. Party President Koirala is opposed, naturally enough: It is very unlikely that Sujata would attain a senior leadership post under that system. He characterizes the move as “weakening party leadership,” exactly the result his opponents and the half-dozen potential successors to his post intend.

Those in the Koirala camp warn that the result of sharing power would be never-ending power politics within the party. They point to the UML, which recently took similar moves. The UML prime minister, M. K. Nepal, and party president, Jhalanath Khanal, are barely on speaking terms, and a third UML faction supports the Maoists on most issues.

But the UML has always been a contentious lot, and party members below the central committee level appear happier with divided leadership than centralized control: At least, they point out, they can now replace their leaders if necessary.

The same kind of change is likely for the Nepali Congress when the Girija Koirala era ends next spring. But it’s not certain, despite the apparently overwhelming support for decentralization within the party. Koirala has been called out before but held onto power anyway. Until the final showdown and the passing of the uncrowned king from Nepal’s political scene, anything is possible.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.