Undermining LoktantraIt seems that the large electoral mandate has been misinterpreted by the prime minister.
Yesterday, April 24, marked Loktantra Diwas. The national day of celebration, which roughly translates to Democracy Day, holds a much deeper meaning for the Nepali people which the translation does not do justice. For, while democracy in some form had been brought to Nepal after the revolution of 1951 and again restored after the People’s Movement in 1990, the People’s Movement of 2006 would mark the beginning of the end of the monarchy for good; Loktantra Diwas then celebrates republicanism and federalism as much as it does democracy. As each Loktantra Diwas passes, Nepal moves further towards a more federal setup—finally fulfilling the promise of ‘bringing Singha Durbar to the people’s doorstep’. The first elected local governments in over 20 years are nearing the mid-point of their tenure; the first provincial assemblies and governments are close to a similar milestone.
No one envisioned that a major transition in the very functioning of government in Nepal would come quickly. Therefore, even as the healthcare system and bureaucratic facilities were handed over to the provincial and local structures, remnants of the past—district offices answering to the centre—continue to survive in limbo, often competing with local systems due to a lack of a clear division of roles. But with the Nepal Communist Party being in government in six out of seven provinces and holding a large majority in federal parliament, it was hoped that the transition would have been smoother and more complete than it has been until now. After all, the large majorities the ruling party secured in most parts of Nepal was a message from the people—that they prefered political stability and a strong government in place to close the chapter on the long drawn out transition.
Yet, it seems that the large mandate has been entirely misinterpreted by the man in charge of both the ruling party and the federal government, Prime Minister KP Oli. It is no secret that Oli has been critical of the move towards federalism from the start. It is also not news that Oli has, time and again, shown a tendency to embrace authoritarian tendencies over more cooperative and democratic ones. Many essential bills that would strengthen democracy have been waylaid, while many controversial ones have been encouraged. Four dangerous ones that threatened privacy, freedom of expression and free press—the IT management Bill, the Mass Media Bill, the Nepal Special Service Bill and the Media Council Bill—have been pushed on the agenda by the government over bills that would strengthen democracy and federalism. In fact, had the current Covid-19 crisis not forced Parliament to prorogue early, the Nepal Special Service Bill was rumoured to be a priority signing.
Perhaps no one had guessed in 2006 that the most danger to a democratic Nepal since the country’s days under a dictatorship would come from a popularly elected prime minister who helped usher in a republican set-up. But even the current lockdown has not stopped Oli’s manoeuvrings. In an attempt to discount his party members, while attempting to use disgruntled opposition leaders to strengthen his hold on power, Oli sidelined his own cabinet to push through two highly controversial ordinances. Now, with the merger of Samajbadi Party and Rastriya Janata Party diminishing Oli’s hopes of support from outside his party, and with his own party’s Secretariat discrediting his move, Oli is caught in the middle.
Embarrassingly, President Bidhya Devi Bhandari—dragged into this controversy when she hastened to sign Oli’s proposed ordinances—now may have to repeal them herself, admitting an error. More embarrassingly for Oli, barring the president’s repeal of them, his party’s majority in Parliament may be used to throw out the ordinances once Parliament resumes. This episode should serve as an eye opener for the prime minister and the president. The Nepali people have fought too hard and too long to gain a democratic, federal set-up to allow the machinations of the few to derail progress.
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