On December 20, Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari dissolved the country’s lower house of the parliament on Prime Minister KP Oli’s recommendation, raising concerns about the future of the country’s constitutional democracy. Oli’s decision has been criticised for undermining democratic norms. An overwhelming majority of legal experts declared it to be unconstitutional.
Importantly, it has been opposed by a significant section of his own party. Oli’s decision follows an extended conflict within his ruling Nepal Communist Party, formed in 2018 after the merger of the erstwhile Maoist party and United Marxist Leninist Party. Anticipating a vote of no confidence by the majority of his own party’s legislators, Oli moved to scrap the house and call for early elections amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.
After a decade-long process of contested constitution-writing, many had hoped that the new government elected in 2017 would mark a path to political stability. Oli, who rose to popularity following the unofficial blockade by India in 2015, has been leading a government that has seen growing unpopularity in recent years.
In addition to facing allegations of corruption and undemocratic excesses, his tendency to evade accountability and prioritise patronage to close associates have been met with criticism.
As rival faction within his party, led by former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (popularly known as Prachanda) sought to unseat him, Oli has failed to manage the intra-party strife. Instead, he has attempted to garner more authority, including through ordinances that were retracted after strong public outcry.
However, the latest development has pushed Nepal from a simmering political crisis to a path of constitutional crisis.
While Oli’s decision to dissolve the parliament might appear to be an example of parliamentary politicking, it has deeper implications. Beyond its impact on the future of Nepal’s political stability, it also endangers one of the key gains of post-conflict politics in the country: federalism, one of the main demands of various groups in the years leading up to the new constitution.
Nepal’s new federal structure represents the most challenging aspect of the implementation of the 2015 constitution. Marginalised groups in particular argued that such a form of government could end Nepal’s long history of oppression of their communities.
Despite coming to power on the back of the new federal constitution, however, the Oli-led government has persistently undermined the ethos of federalism. In addition to federal overreach on provincial jurisdiction and failing to enable provincial governments to function independently, the Centre continues to maintain a control that threatens to make Nepal a federal republic in name only.
While provinces are constitutionally responsible for issues ranging from internal security to public education, Kathmandu retains a firm grip on these matters even though the present government itself ratified laws that delegate these powers to the provincial governments.
Last month’s dissolution of Parliament may further erode Nepal’s federal structure. The Nepal Communist Party does not lead only the federal government in Kathmandu – it also runs six of Nepal’s seven provincial governments. Of these, four are led by chief ministers who are Oli loyalists, while the other two by those from the rival faction.
The split of the party, which has already effectively started, will mean that the political wrangling will percolate to the provinces. With provincial assemblies being split down according to new party lines, it is likely that governments in the provinces will fall too. Such changes in provincial governments is not inherently a fatal problem for federalism. But given Nepal’s nascent federal system, such early instability could discredit an already imperfectly institutionalised system.
Moreover, such a situation will provide ample space for a resurgent pro-monarchist and anti-federalist movement in Nepal, and embolden anti-democratic activities of fringe groups. After nearly a decade of political irrelevance, a growing list of conservative forces that oppose republicanism, federalism and secularism – major achievements of Nepal’s democratic movements – is now seeking to make a political return.
Most worryingly, this also includes many who were initially supportive of the new system, but are increasingly disillusioned by reports of government corruption and political patronage. In other words, a cynical and flawed implementation of federalism has put the future of Nepali federalism in some doubt.
The decision to dissolve Nepal’s parliament is currently being contested at the Supreme Court, but regardless of the verdict, the foundation of Nepal’s federalism has already been weakened. The forces that actually sought federalism, like the parties claiming to represent Madhesis and indigenous groups, have either been marginalised from mainstream politics, or, like the former Maoists, no longer exist as a political party.
As a consequence, it is unlikely there will be a further push to strengthen federalism in a meaningful way. For Nepalis who face the prospect of a dwindling federal system, Oli’s decision might just be another nail in the coffin.
Shraddha Pokharel is a writer and researcher from Nepal.