Oli is weakening key institutions and it’s not good for democracy, observers sayExperts express concern over government’s attempts to muzzle the media and control democratic and constitutional bodies
In the days leading up to the 2017 elections, the Nepali Congress ran its poll campaigns saying voting the communist forces to power would lead to an authoritarian regime in the country. But the people gave the mandate to the two communist parties—now known as the Nepal Communist Party. KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the leaders of the two communist forces, were vindicated; the Congress became an object of ridicule as it faced the worst ever drubbing in the party’s history.
But a little over one year into office, experts and analysts say many of the Oli administration’s moves are not democratic, as they are aimed at weakening public institutions. Experts in the fields of education, media, bureaucracy and human rights, among others, have already expressed concerns over Oli administration’s actions and the proposed new laws. Krishna Khanal, a professor of political science at Tribhuvan University, said there are two reasons why there has been a systematic attack on institutions.
“First our leaders have very limited understanding of democracy. For our leaders, democracy means winning elections and remain in power forever. That’s why the ruling party should be more democratic—not the opposition or media or civil society,” Khanal told the Post. “I am seeing dangerous signs; these look like attempts to establish authoritarianism.”
Months after assuming office, Oli last year started with assigning sweeping powers to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Oli brought three institutions under the ambit of the Prime Minister’s Office so that the heads of the three institutions would directly report to the prime minister.
But these institutions have turned into a lame duck and have been reporting to his advisers sometimes and mostly to the secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office, multiple officials have told the Post on more than one occasion.
Three major departments—the National Investigation Department, the Department of Revenue Investigation and the Department of Money Laundering Investigation which were under various ministries earlier—have also been brought under the purview of the PMO.
“Bringing these three offices under the purview of the PMO means government secretaries are accountable to the prime minister and not their respective ministers,” said Hari Rokka, a political analyst.
Analysts say the Oli administrations has been following a certain pattern, in which it is taking one move at a time, aiming to break the system. The recent move that has drawn widespread attention is the Media Council Bill. Journalists have been objecting to the Media Council Bill, saying some of its provisions are aimed at gagging the media and curtailing press freedom.
Similarly, a bill to amend the National Human Rights Act has provisions that aim to undermine the authority of the national rights watchdog and give more powers to the attorney general, the government’s chief counsel. Rights defenders have been demanding that bill be revised.
A bill to amend the University Acts is under discussion at a parliamentary committee, which has provisions to authorise the prime minister, in capacity of the ex-officio chancellor of universities, to initiate a process to relieve officials—vice-chancellor, rector and registrar. Universities are autonomous entities worldwide, which are generally governed by the board of trustee, comprising the academicians and the civil society members—and not by the executive of the country.
Former vice-chancellors have been objecting to the bill that empowers the prime minister to remove varsity officials. They view the move as the beginning to treat universities as subordinate agencies of the Prime Minister’s Office.
“The government looks bent on controlling different entities rather than improving them,” Suresh Raj Sharma, former vice-chancellor of Kathmandu University, told the media on Friday when former vice-chancellors of the various universities had gathered to demand that the bill be revoked.
Political analysts say there is hardly any public institution that the Oli administration has not tried to interfere. There are already concerns over the government’s tendency to disrespect Parliament.
Earlier in January, the House Speaker, at the behest of the ruling party, used marshalls to push the National Medical Education Bill through Parliament despite objections from the main opposition Nepali Congress.
Earlier this month, lawmakers from the opposition bench objected to Oli’s remarks in Parliament, saying they were “unparliamentary”. Even though the House Speaker said officials have been asked to remove the “unparliamentary remarks”, Oli appeared adamant, saying the Speaker was not referring to him.
“Prime Minister Oli does not believe in the Westminster system so he is trying to weaken the institutions,” Rokka, also a former Constituent Assembly member from the former Maoist party, told the Post. “Attempts to muzzle the media, the concentration of power around the prime minister and weakening universities clearly show that he is trying to exercise the authoritarian regime.”
Former bureaucrats say the Oli government’s move of maneuvering the top level of bureaucracy by removing all clusters is yet another attack on the system, as it hugely affects the specialised services. The Ministry of General Administration has proposed a new amendment to the Civil Servant Act without specialised services at the top level of bureaucracy, which experts say will mean any government secretary serving at any other ministry—forest or home or finance or land reforms—can be a foreign secretary.
This is an attempt to completely destroy the foreign services, two senior Foreign Ministry officials told the Post. If this proposal is approved, the sanity and purity of the foreign services will vanish.
“This is not a child’s game,” former foreign secretary Madhu Raman Acharya told the Post. “It’s wrong to randomly transfer anyone from other services for the post of foreign secretary.”
Some appointments in the constitutional bodies made by the Oli administration have also come under the media scrutiny because individuals loyal to the ruling party have been picked to head them, which critics say would do more harm than good to democratic values and principles.
Oli, who is also known for his tongue-in-cheek remarks, has on several occasions made some statements, which many people say are far from democratic principles.
Addressing a function in Dhading on Monday, Oli described provincial and local governments as “units under the federal government”, which constitutional experts say is against the spirit of federalism.
“Treating provincial and local governments as units of the federal government means trampling on their constitutionally guaranteed independence,” said Roka. “Chief ministers are not the cadres of his [Oli’s] party; they are heads of provinces. So these signs are not good for Nepal’s functional democracy and federalism.”
Analysts say centralising power, weakening institutions and crushing dissenting voices are the major features of an authoritarian regime. “One needs to shut the mouths of critical masses—media and civil society—before they embark on or start practising the authoritarianism,” said Khanal, the professor. “So attempts are being made to muzzle the press and attack and weaken universities and democratic institutions.”