Climax of Oli’s autogolpeIt is up to the judiciary now to save Nepal's hard-earned federal republican democracy.
On Sunday, Prime Minister KP Oli recommended that President Bidya Devi Bhandari dissolve the House of Representatives and this was sanctioned by the latter in a couple of hours. Election dates are set for April 30 and May 10 next year. This 26-month premature dissolution of the lower chamber of the federal parliament is yet another vindication of the fact that the country’s political class has miserably failed to defend its hard-earned democracy. After all, it only took seven decades and the lives of thousands of Nepalis to get here.
The debate on why every new political experiment fails—incidentally, there has been a dramatic turn of events around the turn of every decade since 1920—is preoccupied with constitutionality, political system or ideology. But the repeating bouts of crisis almost always are seen to have been triggered by an utter deficit of integrity, ability and statesmanship coupled with crude and unprincipled lust for power among the political elites of the day.
Calculated exploitation of the constitutional loopholes by the prime minister to expand or extend powers, tantamount to a constitutional coup, definitely has to do with Oli’s penchant for control. President Bhandari complied with all his bids without any consideration of their ramifications. She did not even choose to hold the customary consultation with constitutional experts before approving a proposal as severe as the one calling for House dissolution. But there are precedents where she has exhibited political biases in favour of her chosen people. For example, in 2017, she sat on the file for months on the recommendation made by the then Sher Bahadur Deuba government to nominate three national assembly members, in the pretext of legal consultation.
Instead of calling for the winter session of the federal parliament which, according to the constitution, must have convened no later than January 1, 2021, so as not to exceed six months’ interval between the two sessions, the dissolution of Parliament is Oli’s deliberate attempt to undermine representative democracy. Oli’s temerity to reissue the Constitutional Council ordinance and dissolve Parliament without firm constitutional basis, among others, were instantaneously approved by the president. In addition, based on the new ordinance, the Council appointed the heads and members of several constitutional bodies right before the House was dissolved.
Oli’s desperation was apparent when he appointed his henchmen in crucial bodies like the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) and National Human Rights Commission along with 11 other constitutional entities, which are ideally expected to be manned by impartial professionals and experts. All these moves have cumulatively put the very future of the constitution and the current political system in grave jeopardy. President Bhandari’s continuous involvement in the factional rivalry in the ruling Nepal Communist Party, in support of the Oli faction, only encouraged him to push on with his measures.
Who is responsible?
The continuous disregard and overexploitation of the constitutional provisions seem to be solely Oli’s doing; this is not entirely the case. Of course, Oli failed to deliver as the prime minister, even with a large mandate. His megalomania and demagogy blinded him to take destructive actions. He must be held responsible for all these mammoth failings. But this is only one side of the coin. The top-hats frequently and unfairly cornered him in the ruling party. The idea of party hegemony was overbearing, and his detractors, too, have failed to prove so far that they are better than Oli.
Oli’s allegation that his own party’s unwanted interference in running the government, right from the beginning of his tenure, certainly holds some water. The current political discourse seems to ignore this facet of the problem completely. The anti-Oli ideologues in the Nepal Communist Party, even before Oli’s recent extremities, have been publicly advocating that the government must function under the direct diktats of the party. The cardinal thought of the ruling party leadership is that the government is only an implementing mechanism for the decisions made by the party committees instituted in parallel to the country’s administrative structure.
The supporters of the party-controlled government argue that such disciplinary restrictions are necessary because, firstly, it is ‘the party’s government’ and second, such a noose is inevitable to ‘control corruption’ and ‘ensure people-oriented governance’. These political designs are outrightly anti-constitutional and even more a dangerous form of attack against Nepal’s constitution. If this philosophy of governing the country continues to dominate in any ruling party, the scope of institutionalising democracy is bound to be constricted.
Also, the Political Parties’ Act 2017, including its two subsequent amendments, does not provide for the ruling political outfit(s) to interfere in the day-to-day functioning of the government, let alone control it. The sub-section 20 (2h) says they shall take ‘necessary initiative on governmental or non-governmental sectors to practically implement the citizens’ right to get good governance and (only) support the government mechanism for the cause’. Similarly, according to the sub-section 20 (2n), they would function according to their election manifesto. As such, the incumbent governance scheme only envisions that the government, once elected to the office, be controlled by and is accountable to nothing else but the constitution itself.
It also appears that the ruling party is not bothered by the fact that the supposedly sovereign Parliament was continuously overshadowed. Oli’s tactics of evading the parliamentary process even to pass key laws with long-term impact, and tantrums of out-of-government ruling elites to treat Parliament as a mere rubber stamp took a toll on legislative supremacy. Such practices, therefore, would not limit themselves to correct the course Oli has taken as the prime minister but in effect connive to upend the entire constitutional arrangement and accountability. This is far more ominous than containing Oli-like characters who accidentally happen to be in the berth of power.
The case of the House dissolution has now landed in the Supreme Court—the only authority that can interpret the constitution. The judiciary has now the responsibility of saving Nepal’s republican constitution and the hard-earned federal democracy. It is also an essential opportunity for the court to prove that it has so far preserved its independence from the long shadow of Oli’s autogolpe and the Nepal Communist Party’s ‘the party is the state’ philosophy.