Nepal has quietly plunged into a constitutional crisis. After months of tension within the ruling Nepal Communist Party, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli on Sunday recommended that the country’s lower house of parliament be dissolved. Nepal President Bidya Devi Bhandari duly followed through.
Oli’s defence: “The elected government was pushed to a corner and picketed against” by rival factions of his own party, so what could he do but dissolve parliament? If the country’s Supreme Court does not stay the move, Nepal will go into elections on April 30 and May 10 to elect a new government.
It has been argued that Oli’s actions were unconstitutional as there is no provision for the prime minister to unilaterally dissolve parliament. Across the country, protestors from the Nepal Communist Party took to the streets to protest against Oli’s “undemocratic” move.
An unpopular executive order precipitated the current crisis. But a lot more lies beneath. A clash of personalities – Oli and former Nepal prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, popularly known as Prachanda. Nepal’s fraught relationship with parliamentary democracy. Its position as a buffer state between India and China, both fighting for influence over it.
Oli pulled the plug on parliament after he came under pressure to withdraw an ordinance under the Constitutional Council Act, issued on Tuesday and rubber stamped by the president the same day.
The Constitutional Council, headed by the prime minister, makes key appointments such as members of judiciary, foreign missions and constitutional bodies. Earlier provisions of the act stipulated that five of the six members must be present in meetings of the council, which must act on consensus. The ordinance, which had scant support even within the ruling party, allowed the council to convene even if only three members were present and decisions may be passed by a simple majority. The House Speaker and the leader of the Opposition party need not be present.
It is an order that is perhaps characteristic of Oli, who “turned the Prime Minister’s Office into a parallel power centre to Singha Darbar”, or parliament, said an editorial in the Nepali Times. Indeed, he was the first prime minister to take charge after Nepal got a new constitution, restructuring it into a federal, secular republic, in 2015. Over the years, Oli has acquired a reputation for authoritarian and centralising tendencies, criticised for failing to cement alliances and work with other leaders in the party.
Yet the fate of his government depended on this skill. In 2018, Oil’s government was able to claim a two-thirds majority after his Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) merged with Dahal’s Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre).
Both men had rebelled against monarchist Nepal in their own ways. In the 1970s and ’80s, Oli had spent 14 years in jail for opposing the autocratic partyless panchayat system instituted under King Mahendra. From 1996 to 2006, Dahal led an armed rebellion against the government, demanding, among other things, democracy, an end to the domination of foreign capital in Nepal and the abrogation of “discriminatory” foreign treaties.
This referred to the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which many in Nepal resented on the grounds that it would not allow the country to pursue an independent foreign and defence policy. After Dahal joined the peace process, Maoist troops were absorbed into the regular army and Nepal’s monarchy was dissolved.
The two leaders have attempted uneasy truces ever since Nepal’s new constitution came into force in 2015. Oli’s government fell in 2016 after the Maoists withdrew support from it. Dahal formed a government with the help of the Nepal Congress and parties representing the minority Madhesi community but then stepped down to pave the way for elections in 2017.
The Nepali press has called the 2018 merger between the two parties a “marriage of convenience”. Oli and Dahal constantly fought over power-sharing and the division of responsibilities. Dahal was reportedly disgruntled by Oli’s refusal to hand over the reins of government after two-and-a-half years. Oli accused Dahal and senior party leader Madhav Kumar Nepal of conspiring to topple his government.
These upheavals took place at a time when Nepal needed a stable government to establish the credibility of the new parliamentary democracy and set up institutions. The constitution had been challenged from the start by minorities such as the Madhesis, who felt their rights were not adequately recognised. Transitional justice, which was to address the wounds of internal conflict, never took off. Constitutional bodies run the danger of becoming absorbed into political vendetta.
It does not help that Nepal lives under the shadow of China in the north and India in the south. Sections of the Nepali press have grown chary of the influence of both countries, arguing for a foreign policy that is free of the India-China “binary”.
The rise of Nepali communists, some have observed, have helped China gain strategic influence in the country. China is invested in keeping the Nepali Communist Party united to consolidate its hold there. The warring factions are said to have held together so far because of the good offices of the Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi. Even on November 17, Yangi held long meetings with top leaders, after which tensions temporarily thawed. But Oli’s move to dissolve parliament seems to have upended these efforts.
India, meanwhile, has watched with growing alarm as China advanced and its own warm ties with Nepal cooled. Many in Nepal accused India of inciting the Madhesi protests and economic blockade of 2015. For years, there have been rumours of India backing one party over the other in Nepal.
There have been a flurry of visits from Delhi to Kathmandu this year, first by top military and intelligence officials, then by the foreign secretary, and finally by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party who went to prepare the ground for Nepal Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali’s trip to India this month.
But this has not been a good year for bilateral ties. As tensions between India and China flared up in eastern Ladakh, so did long-buried disputes on the Indo-Nepal border. Kathmandu suddenly issued maps claiming territory that had effectively been under Indian control for six decades.
Oli then ruffled Hindutva feathers in India by declaring Nepal was the birthplace of Ram, days before the foundations for the Ram temple were laid in Ayodhya. The Nepal prime minister seems keen to shore up his power through a hypernationalism based on questionable pop history – not unlike the Hindu Right in India.
The Nepal Communist Party now seems to be headed for an inevitable split. Oli has been replaced by Madhav Kumar Nepal, part of the Dahal faction, as co-chairman of the party. It is not yet clear which powerful neighbour this will favour. What seems clear is Nepal’s disillusionment with the promise of a hard-won parliamentary democracy.