KATHMANDU, Nepal—Nepal’s call for early elections could hurt China’s ambitions in the country as a split in the Himalayan nation’s ruling Communist Party could open the way for a less pro-China party to take control.
Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli called for the dissolution of the lower house of parliament over the weekend in a move to stop the infighting within his Nepal Communist Party.
The party has separated into two factions, each claiming control, and will likely be divided before the elections, political analysts and party insiders say. The vote is now set to start in April, more than a year and a half earlier than originally planned.
“The party has already split into two in effect,” said Pampha Bhusal, a leader of the Nepal Communist Party faction opposing Mr. Oli.
Different groups have filed court cases to try to reverse the dissolution of parliament. Nepal’s supreme court started hearing the cases on Wednesday.
China had been trying to help the opposing groups within the party get along to maintain its dominant position in parliament, but some party leaders were upset Mr. Oli wasn’t sharing control of the country. They were rebelling and threatening a no-confidence vote.
If the party splits there is a good chance elections next spring could be won by the Nepali Congress, a party that historically has preferred closer ties to India.
Under Prime Minister Oli the landlocked country of 30 million people has been warming to China. As Beijing has been looking to bolster its partnerships around the world, Kathmandu has been seeking help in modernizing its economy and lessening its dependence on India.
The shift toward China was in part a reaction to what Nepalis saw as heavy-handed attempts by New Delhi to interfere with Nepal’s politics. In 2015, supply lines through Nepal’s border with India were blocked by local groups who felt marginalized by its new constitution. Many Nepalis think India was complicit and allowed the blockade because it also wasn’t happy with the new constitution. New Delhi denies it was involved.
The wave of nationalism that followed helped sweep communist parties into power. They started steering the country closer to China. China’s investment and involvement in Nepal has grown dramatically, including Chinese leader Xi Jinping last year making his country’s first presidential visit to Nepal in nearly a quarter-century.
China is becoming more involved all across South Asia. It has constructed ports and roads in Pakistan and Sri Lanka as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, providing financing and expertise.
In Nepal, Chinese foreign investment has soared. Total Chinese investment in the nation over the past three years has been more than five times the investment from India.
Nepal and China cooperated in a detailed survey of Mount Everest and this month announced a new official height of the world’s tallest mountain, ending more than a decade of different official heights.
“China will work with Nepal to move forward our strategic partnership of cooperation, featuring everlasting friendship for development and prosperity and jointly foster an ever-closer community,” President Xi said in a letter read at the event unveiling the new height on Dec. 8.
Like most other South Asia nations, with the notable exception of India, Nepal has also signed up for China’s help with multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road program.
Among the projects planned in Nepal are a railroad through the Himalayas and a tunnel under them to connect the two countries. Most of the projects are still in the planning stage with little progress at this point, in part due to the gridlock in Kathmandu due to the squabbling politicians.
As the fighting within the Communist party continued to fester this year, China stepped in and tried to help parliament members cooperate. China’s ambassador in Kathmandu has been shuttling between meetings with jockeying political factions, hoping to find a solution.
Zhang Si, a spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu, said China doesn’t interfere with other countries’ internal affairs and China’s Belt and Road Initiative plans with Nepal will go through no matter who is in power.
“We believe that no matter how the situation evolves, the friendship between our countries will not be affected and our cooperation under the framework of BRI won’t be affected,” he said.
It remains to be seen what will happen next, but political analysts and party insiders say the ruling party—which was created by the merger of two different parties in 2018—may split again. That would leave both parties vulnerable in the spring elections to being outflanked by Nepali Congress.
If Nepali Congress returns to power it could mean a return to a more traditional relationship with India, still by far the country most integrated with Nepal.
Both countries are predominantly Hindu, with a shared culture and philosophy. India is by far Nepal’s largest trading partner.
Landlocked Nepal depends overwhelmingly on Indian ports. The two countries have an open border enabling their citizens to travel, work and stay in each other’s nation without visa or permit. Nepali Gurkhas fight in the Indian Army.
“It seems like the Indian sphere of influence will increase” again in Nepal, said Khadga Khatri Chhetri, professor of international relations at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.
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