Political instability as usualThe best among the worst choices is to seek a fresh mandate by holding an election.
Five years after the promulgation of the constitution, which Nepalis believed would put Nepal on the way to political stability, the country has again encountered instability. Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli’s abrupt dissolution of the House of Representatives has pushed the country into chaos even before there was a proper settlement of the long-drawn transition from a monarchy-led unitary state to a federal republic. In a culmination of the series of salvos that Oli fired at the constitution, he shoved four hard-earned achievements—federalism, republicanism, secularism and proportional representation—into a serious crisis before they were institutionalised.
There are several reasons, apart from the deep-seated rancour between the two rival factions in the ruling Nepal Communist Party, behind the turn of events. Oli’s move to consolidate power and undermine the constitution with ill-timed ordinances are widely seen as evidence of his penchant to run a quasi-authoritarian rule. He plainly refused to accommodate top party leaders including Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal who later chose to part ways.
The political fault lines were already wide and clear when the constitution was promulgated with none of the parties wholeheartedly embracing the charter. The kingpins of the major political parties, including the erstwhile CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Centre), and Nepali Congress, and the bureaucracy unwillingly accepted secularism and federalism while a majority of identity-based groups resented the hasty and contentious process by which the statute was unilaterally adopted by the largest parties. The constitution frustrated the aspirations of the Madhesi, Janajati, Tharu and Dalit communities as they doubted that the charter would redress the deeply entrenched historical and structural discriminations.
Following the dissolution of the House, the Nepali people are completely baffled about the course the country will take. While all eyes are on the Supreme Court to see how it will respond to Oli’s move, a small section of society believe that street protests may compel him to reverse his move. While waiting to see which way the wind blows, there appear to be three major scenarios that could unfold over the next one to two years.
First, Oli’s move to dissolve the House has been challenged in court. The case is sub-judice with little possibility that the Supreme Court will overturn Oli’s decision. A reinstated Parliament will see a shift in the balance of power with oscillating political alliances. Neither of the two factions of the fragmented Nepal Communist Party nor any other single party possesses a clear majority to form a new government. The Oli-led government in its current form will not continue unless it wins a vote of confidence in the reinstated House.
Shifting alliances and re-alliances will result in short-lived governments and thus prolonged instability. Our neighbours in the north and south, as usual, are likely to jump into the scene to ‘resolve the imminent crisis in the neighbourhood’. Beijing will obviously try for a renewed dialogue between the two factions of the Nepal Communist Party to get them reunited. Oli’s growing ambition has raised a few eyebrows in Delhi, hence they would like to see a weakened Nepal Communist Party in the electoral fray. India will thus throw its weight behind a Nepali Congress-Janata Samajwadi Party coalition government.
The second scenario envisions that the Supreme Court will uphold Oli’s decision to dissolve Parliament and rule in favour of holding a mid-term election with or without a definite date. The key question underlying this scenario is who will lead the government to hold the polls. Owing to inter-party mistrust, there is a precedent of political parties delaying reaching a consensus to lead an electoral government. The Nepali Congress, Janata Samajwadi Party and the Dahal-Nepal faction of the Nepal Communist Party are unlikely to accept an Oli-led caretaker government to hold the election.
There are two variants of this scenario. One, demand for an interim government led by an apolitical and widely accepted figure or a civil servant-led transitional government with the sole task of holding the election. Two, an all-party election government. A rise to the radicalisation of ultra-left and pro-monarchist forces is foreseeable as they will also seek to be accommodated in the power-sharing arrangement or wield pressure to integrate their agenda.
In both scenarios, the election is unlikely to happen in April-May as scheduled mainly for three reasons: The case is under judicial consideration and by the time the court pronounces its verdict, the Election Commission will have little time to make preparations; the major parties will lobby for a delayed election until they think they can win a majority of the seats; some people will be hesitant to go to the polling stations in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The third scenario envisions the absence of the House of Representatives and a deferred election for an indefinite period. If the parties remain unable to reach a consensus on holding the election or restoring the House, caretaker arrangements will be in place for a long time. Constant power struggles between the parties could see the country embark on a worse confrontational course. The protracted status quo will provoke the radicalisation of the main political actors. The ultra-left, pro-monarchist and pro-Hindu forces will challenge the legitimacy of the constitution, causing major disruptions in society. Subsequently, the country will land in protracted political disorder and potential violence in the face of a constitutional vacuity.
Amid an unsettling mix of uncertainty and frustration, the best among the worst choices for the country is to seek a fresh mandate by holding a free, fair and timely election. Further destabilisation of the beleaguered constitution, combined with a breakdown in political engagement, could lead to an irreparable political and constitutional void and violence.