In Nepal, an attack on democracy
When Nepal’s Prime Minister (PM) KP Oli dissolved Parliament and announced elections on December 20, he clearly overstepped his executive authority. Nepal’s entire political class, barring Oli, and Nepali civil society, including constitutional experts, overwhelmingly believe that the move was unconstitutional and illegitimate.
Oli’s decision needs to be seen in a larger global context of democratically-elected leaders undermining democracy. Democracies now face a new challenge — where elected leaders can unleash democratic backsliding and carry out executive takeovers by taking a series of what appear to be “democratic” decisions.
PM Oli has had a history of trying to use parliamentary acts and executive decisions to limit people’s freedoms. He has hollowed out independent institutions and sought to use them as mechanisms of political control, in order to reduce executive accountability and undermine opponents. Oli has packed in institutions such as the Election Commission, Department of Money Laundering Investigation, and most recently, the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, with loyalists, often bypassing bipartisan constitutional methods of appointment, to maintain control. The dissolution of Parliament needs to be understood in this backdrop. Oli has expanded his control over the State, while bypassing the institutions that have tried to keep him accountable — Parliament, political party, and civil society.
Oli has also, opportunistically, used political principles only when it has suited him, driven by a psychology that puts individual needs above that of democracy and constructs political ideologies to suit that need. For example, he is driven by a need for social affirmation of his personality and the desire to be seen as a statesman. To achieve this end, he replaced political ideology with a populist ideology that could camouflage his authoritarian streaks. He used the agenda of “nationalism” and development in theory while abandoning the democratic processes that could in fact strengthen the nation and unleash economic development.
Given its history of political instability — Nepal has had over two dozen PMs in the last three decades — Nepal adopted a revised multi-party system that was different from the Westminster model. The new Constitution deliberately cut off possibilities for dissolution of Parliament at the whims of the executive or political parties. During the elections, the unified Nepal Communist Party (NCP) — a product of the merger of the Maoists and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) — promised political stability and development and claimed that only a political party with a clear majority can deliver political stability.
Oli points to the opposition within the NCP — he has faced a severe challenge from former PMs Madhav Kumar Nepal and Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” — as the reason for his non-performance and his decision to go for fresh people’s mandate. But this is disingenuous. In a multi-party democracy, political parties are the central means through which accountability is ensured. In any case, how the party ensures accountability is a matter internal to the party and the country cannot be held hostage to resolve petty internal differences. Oli did not want this accountability — and the more he got squeezed within his party, the more he unleashed his authoritarian impulses.
Oli’s move shows that there is a clear disconnect between his personal needs and the nation’s challenges, especially in the face of Covid-19. At a time when the government should be focused on implementing the new Constitution, tackling the pandemic and protecting people’s livelihoods, the country will be — on paper — heading to uncertain and costly elections.
Although the idea of obtaining a fresh electoral mandate sounds tempting, Nepal‘s political history is replete with instances where elections have been not held after being announced; the unconstitutional nature of Oli’s announcement will make it even more unlikely this time around. All of this will further undermine Nepal’s democracy and people’s trust in the process. There are extreme Right and extreme Left forces waiting for precisely this to overthrow the entire structure of a federal, democratic, secular, republican Nepal.
The PM’s move also comes at a time when Nepalis are tired of the geopolitical rivalry between China, India and the United States in the domestic theatre. Many people perceive these great and emerging powers as interfering in Nepal’s internal politics and shaping policies to favour their strategic interests. Political instability in Nepal allows amoral political actors, especially non-democratic States, the opportunity to intervene.
Nepalis want good governance, democratic stability and economic development. Supporting PM Oli’s move undermines all these principles. All external powers — particularly democracies — must recognise the true nature of what has happened in Nepal, the corrosion of democracy and the emergence of authoritarianism, and the possibility that this will invite a period of prolonged instability which will make it even more vulnerable to geopolitical actors.
Vijay Kant Karna is a political scientist, former ambassador, and executive chairperson of the Centre for Social Inclusion and Federalism
Ajaya Bhadra Khanal is a former editor and research director at CESIF
The views expressed are personal