Attacking the system one step at a timeOli administration’s actions are against constitutional provisions and pose threat to democratic principles and norms, observers say.
Civil liberty is something the KP Sharma Oli administration has never given two hoots about. It was evident from its initial decisions not to allow protests in the Maitighar area.
In the subsequent months, the Oli administration tried to introduce various laws that were largely aimed at curtailing freedom of expression and press freedom and shrinking civic space. It was only after protests and objections that it stepped back.
The difference between the Oli administration and the governments in the past is it was the first one to have a clear electorate mandate to govern for the full term in about two and a half decades.
People frustrated with frequent government changes every nine months on an average had breathed a sigh of relief when Oli returned to power in February 2018 with a nearly two-thirds majority in Parliament.
But the Oli administration not only squandered a golden opportunity to ensure good governance and strengthen the system guaranteed by the constitution but also started to take the country down the regressive path, observers say.
“It seems Oli is least bothered about protecting this constitution, federalism, inclusiveness, secularism,” said Puranjan Acharya, a political commentator. “These are our hard-earned achievements.”
Since its restoration in 1990, Nepal’s democracy has been on quite a bumpy road. The fledgling democracy was nipped in about 15 years when then king Gyanendra assumed absolute power in 2005. An armed outfit led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the current chair of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, declared a war against the state in 1996 demanding socio-political transformation, which included abolishing the monarchy and getting rid of the multiparty parliamentary system that the country was practising. Maoist leaders who before the war were in parliament representing a party called Janamorcha Nepal had even described parliament as “a place where dog meat is sold by showing a goat’s head”.
The Maoist war continued for 10 years.
Gyanedra’s putsch in 2005 prompted Nepal’s political parties to unite. The Maoists who laid down their weapons in 2006 joined the force.
The historic people’s movement forced Gyanendra to capitulate.
In 2008, the country abolished the 240-year-old monarchy. After wrangling for seven years, political parties in September 2015 promulgated a new constitution, prompted by massive earthquakes that killed nearly 9,000 people, amid objections from various sections of the society.
Oli for the first time had been to Baluwatar in October that year, with the support of Dahal’s Maoist party, and remained there for 10 months.
Oli made a comeback in 2018 with a resounding victory.
A strong and stable government, analysts say, was expected to strengthen the system, root out corruption, empower institutions and enable sub-national governments. But it looks like the country is going in the opposite direction, according to them.
Journalist Chandra Kishore, a columnist for the Post’s sister paper Kantipur, has been keenly watching the developments over the past years—since the promulgation of the constitution in 2015 and elections in 2017.
“I sometimes wonder if there is democracy at the grassroots,” Chandra Kishore told the Post. “After electing provincial and local governments, the federal government in Kathmandu has never bothered to devolve power. Democracy flourishes when it’s inclusive and when it starts from the grassroots.”
Even after being installed about three years ago, the federal government has yet to introduce several laws so as to empower the sub-national governments and make them work independently.
“A strong federal government with such a huge mandate to strengthen the system actually has carried out a coup by stifling the sub-national governments,” said Chandra Kishore.
Prime Minister Oli himself has not hesitated to make some statements over the years, which observers say blatantly go against the system the country has adopted through the constitution.
In May last year, Oli said that provincial and local governments are not separate entities, but units under the federal government.
“Nepal is one nation, one country and has one government—Nepal government. It has different subordinate agencies—seven provincial and 253 local governments,” Oli said, warning the other two tiers of government not to take “unnecessary steps”.
In May this year, during a discussion on the government’s policies and programmes at Parliament, Oli said that provincial and local governments “are not autonomous entities” and that they, instead, are under the federal government.
In October, Oli told Karnali chief minister and other leaders of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) that provinces are administrative units under the federal government.
Article 56 (1) of the constitution says: “The main structure of the federal democratic republic of Nepal shall be of three levels, namely the federation, the state and the local level.”
Article 56 (2) states that the federation, state and local levels shall exercise the power of the state of Nepal pursuant to this constitution and law.
Not only observers, party insiders too say Oli has repeatedly displayed his uncanny authoritative streak. The current crisis in the ruling party is also because of Oli’s opponents alleging that he has been running the party and the government in a “unilateral way” bypassing the consultative process, which is a must if democratic norms were to be followed, according to party insiders.
Ram Karki, a lawmaker from the ruling party, says neither his party nor the government has been able to internalise that the changes that the country has brought about are meant for the people and not for a handful of leaders.
“Political parties are known as agents of change that can make a difference in the lives of people by upholding their rights and ensuring service delivery to them,” said Karki. “Taking people along is democracy; when people are kept out, democracy is doomed.”
The Oli administration over the past two and a half years has been facing the charges that no democratically elected government would like to—corruption, contempt for the media, efforts to shrink civic space and centralisation of power.
What is concerning is, observers say, if the new wave the world is seeing–that democratically elected governments are bent on destroying democracy–is finding a refuge in Nepal under the Oli administration.
In their book “How Democracies Die”, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard University, have described how democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.
“Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves. Like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine,” they write.
In Nepal, it will be too far-fetched to think about the death of democracy, observers say. But they drop a caveat that if a government begins to think that the electoral mandate given to it means a carte blanche to do whatever it wants and if the opposition fails to play its role to hold the government to account, these are dangerous signs for democracy.
The Nepali Congress’ utter failure to perform the role of the opposition has over the past years emboldened the Oli government.
Amid rising frustrations among the people, in recent days, pro-monarchy and pro-Hindu forces have started to take to the streets demanding the scrapping of the federal system. Earlier this week, these forces marched on Kathmandu streets. The protests were held unhindered even as gatherings, rallies and demonstrations have not been allowed in the wake of the rising number of coronavirus cases.
On Thursday, Nepali Congress senior leader Ram Chandra Poudel was detained for three hours in Tanahun “for violating prohibitory orders,” much to the opposition party’s chagrin.
“Oli appears to be bent on destroying the system,” said Shekhar Koirala, a Congress leader. His actions are posing a serious threat to democracy. While pro-monarchy forces are freely holding rallies, one of our senior leaders was taken into custody, which just makes a mockery of democratic values.”
The Oli administration’s selective dealings when it comes to rallies were seen in the past too. When a youth-led campaign was holding peaceful demonstrations against corruption and demanding polymerase chain reaction tests for all, the Oli administration was swift to use force. But on the heels of those demonstrations, Oli’s supporters carried out rallies in favour of the government, without facing any objection from security forces.
Observers and political party leaders say the Oli administration is trying to destroy the democratic system one step at a time. Making parliament non-functional, weakening constitutional bodies and institutions by keeping them vacant and making the Office of the President work in favour of his government are some of the examples, they say.
After facing a serious crisis in the party, Oli suddenly prorogued Parliament on July 2. Since then laws are being promulgated through ordinances.
Dahal, Oli’s bete noire in the party, has also accused Oli of making attempts to dissolve the House, something which is not provisioned in the constitution. Dahal, though he tried to clarify later, has also accused Oli of trying to influence the judiciary.
Many say the Oli administration has been trampling on a key component of democracy—separation of powers—by trying to erase the distinct lines between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.
“Oli is systematically attacking the system, posing a serious threat to democracy and federalism,” Koirala told the Post.
Observers, however, say though Oli as prime minister and the leader of the largest party deserves more blame, the main opposition is equally responsible.
“The role of the opposition is to keep the government in check. It should continuously remind the government of its wrongdoings,” said Acharya, the political commentator.
“Can you imagine Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba playing the role of the opposition? The Oli administration is failing but so is the Congress party. Pro-royalist forces are on the streets but have you seen the Congress? Its presence is neither in Parliament nor on the streets.”