They all want him out: rebels within the ruling Congress, the main opposition UML, the smaller parties in parliament, the Maoists, the extreme right. Even Nepal's donors are getting impatient. But Girija Prasad Koirala is a stubborn fighter, and he is getting ready to take a last stand.
After thinking he had defused a mutiny within his party at the Pokhara Convention last month, Koirala was getting ready to train his guns at the opposition. But the internal rifts were too deep to heal, and even a crucial reshuffle last week didn't do the trick. Key ministerial appointee Khum Bahadur Khadka refused to take his oath of office at the Royal Palace and was fired a week later. Even the threat of a united opposition move during the winter session of parliament that began on 8 February failed to unite the Congress.
The UML's main charge is that Koirala was up to his neck in the controversial lease of a Boeing 767 for Royal Nepal Airlines from the Austrian charter operator, Lauda Air. Koirala sacrificed the airline's executive chairman and later his tourism minister but the opposition was not satisfied. We've learnt that it may take more time for the Commission for the Investigation of the Abuse of Authority (CIAA) to press formal charges, if any. But that's not stopping UML's Madhav Kumar Nepal from making this the main issue in parliament. The UML and the smaller left and right opposition members have been raising slogans inside the House, walking out and staying away.
So, there we have it: a government whose presence cannot be felt, a ruling party with a majority but which is paralysed by dissent, an opposition driven to make its presence felt because of impending elections, and minor political groups forced to take sides, if only to prove that they too exist. The country meanwhile teeters on the edge, Girija refuses to go and the opposition refuses to let go.
The UML and the four other opposition groups know that they do not command the numbers to get rid of Koirala, they are banking on an outpouring of public outrage as in the Philippines which forced President Estrada out after charges of corruption. They are also seemingly unconcerned about what all this politicking will do to the CIAA, which is investigating the Lauda deal, and remains one of few institutions that most Nepalis still believe is clean. A CIAA source confided: "We're worried about where all this flag-waving is dragging us. There is no reason why the entire nation should be paralysed by one specific investigation that is taking its normal course."
The UML knows it has a juicy bone and is snarling at anyone who comes near. In a two-hour long tirade on the opening day of parliament, Nepal said Koirala was not only a failed prime minister, but also corrupt. "If he wants to help the investigation he should resign, otherwise we'll have to understand he's there to destroy evidence," he warned. Nepal also gave the CIAA a veiled warning saying it was being watched to see if it would "chicken out" on the investigation.
To be sure, even considering the accepted wisdom that all aircraft deals in Nepal are tainted, the Lauda lease has some kinks. The aircraft is expensive (the $3,350 per flying hour quoted does not include the large bills for crew layovers and other overheads). Still, papers available so far from the Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC) do not directly implicate the prime minister; all they show is that the cabinet approved the purchase and released the foreign exchange. What PAC members were more incensed about is that the Cabinet ignored it earlier directive to stop the agreement pending an investigation, and for violating a CIAA directive on leasing procedures. It was also suspicious about why the tourism minister went back on his decision not to get the jet through direct negotiations. There is no hard evidence to back the allegations of malpractice, and the accusations hinge on suspicions that kickbacks were offered, and taken. They probably were, but someone has to prove it.
The CIAA is now combing the paperwork, including what we're told is a voluminous proposal given to the Cabinet. Only after it is through and prepares a case will we know if there will be any formal charges. One senior Koirala aide told us: "The opposition knows the prime minister won't resign over these charges. They may eventually try to take the issue to the streets."
Ironically, the boycott of parliament is delaying the enactment of crucial anti-corruption bills, including one that would give the CIAA more teeth. With the house paralysed, the Armed Police Force ordinance to set up a special paramilitary unit to fight the Maoists also hangs in the balance.