Nepal’s Democracy in Peril

  • Youba Raj Acharya, Prema Bista Thapa

Nepal has gone through no less than 53 changes of government since it first became a democracy in 1951, and none of them has successfully completed a full five-year term. Nepal’s fragile multi-party democracy is still under stress.

Growing public frustration over the current system of governance and rapidly eroding public trust in political leaders comes against the backdrop of a surging COVID-19 infection rate. Hospitals lack basic services and the government’s attempts to procure vaccines remains largely ineffective, resulting in vaccination for only about 5 percent of the population. From impatience with political infighting to concerns about pandemic response, all of this has laid the foundations for democratic backsliding.

On the recommendation of Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli, Nepal’s president dissolved the House of Representatives (HoR) in May 2021 and called for new elections in November. This is Oli’s second attempt to dissolve the HoR; his earlier try was revoked by the Supreme Court last February. The move to dissolve the HoR has been controversial, to say the least, and has led to a lengthy court battle splitting the country into pro- and anti-Oli camps. Opposition groups complain that the president is biased in favor of Oli in all constitutional and legal matters.

This political crisis was not created overnight. It stems from deep-rooted differences in ideology, strategy, and personality, which led the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) to split into two parties: the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center). Intra-party fighting continues within Oli’s party and is spilling over into other parties. This in-fighting has paralyzed the government and created a national political crisis. Oli’s internal party rivals are reaching out to his political opposition while Oli himself is trying to orchestrate a split in another, smaller party, Janata Samajbadi Party which holds 32 seats in the parliament.

It is against this backdrop that the president, Oli’s ally, has dissolved the HoR twice, at Oli’s recommendation. Nepali voters are waiting to see what the country’s Supreme Court decides about the constitutionality of the president’s move. This is all a reminder of the politics of the 1990s, when frustration over political instability created by a power struggle inside parliament fueled Nepal’s bloody ten-year Maoist insurgency. The insurgency ended with the Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2006, after years of instability, economic losses, and the death of 17,000 people. Now, in 2021, moves to disband the HoR are seen as a threat to the rule of law and thereby potentially destabilizing for the Nepal’s democracy. A year-long intra-party rift in the then-ruling NCP is reminiscent of the murky political games of the late ‘90s. Political experts are worried about the current climate of political instability, but do not expect a return to the civil war of the ‘90s, though the Prime Minister’s repeated attempts to dissolve the HoR, political horse-trading and opportunism, and deep divisions in political parties, at both the local and national level, remain grave concerns.

These internal splits could also push political leaders to look for external support to quell rivalries. Nepal is sandwiched between two giant and assertive neighbors, India and China, and requests for help could open the country to malign foreign influence.

This political instability should not have come at the worst time. During the coronavirus pandemic, dissolving the House and pushing the country toward fresh elections just because of an intra-party feud seems like an insensitive move by the Prime Minister. It also contravenes agreements in the peace process and the provisions of the 2015 Constitution, which prohibits the Prime Minister from dissolving the HoR at his/her discretion. Oli’s reluctance to discuss government affairs at party forums, his appointments of henchmen to key government positions, and the funneling of state money to party organizations aligned with  him, to weaken his internal rivals, has galvanized his opposition. This frustration has been fueled by rifts in the ruling party, the government’s attempts to centralize powers, and underperformance during the COVID response.

Much depends on the Supreme Court’s verdict. If it validates the dissolution of the HoR, the country will head toward elections, despite the turmoil of the pandemic. If the Court rules against Oli and the president and overturns the dissolution, parliamentary horse-trading will begin again. Neither outcome is good for Nepal’s fragile multi-party democracy and the legitimacy of the government.

Independent civil society plays an important role in upholding democracy and making government accountable. Groups and institutions must put pressure on political leaders to support democracy and uphold the rule of law. To overcome the deepening political crisis and avert further damage to its democratic polity, Nepal’s leaders must manage their egos, adhere to the rules of competition set in the Constitution, and ensure a smooth transition of leadership to the younger generation.

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