Step back from the brink

Locals across Nepal continue to stage protests against the dissolution of the Lower House. Photo: BIKRAM RAI

As feared, Prime Minister KP Oli’s brinkmanship has led the country to the edge of the cliff. This cartoon in Nepali Times last week was prescient.

The coming days will show whether we as a nation go over, or take a step back. While the role of the Prime Minister to bring matters to the point of dissolving the House is obvious, it is also important to recognise the cast of characters who pushed him to the rim of the precipice.

Nepal has not had a prime minister serve a full term since the end of the Rana regime in 1950. The continuity of the Head of Government in office itself was bound to have provided political stability and economic stimulus. That was the hope after the 2017 elections.

The three years of the prime minister’s rule have seen several little-appreciated advances such as the handling of a secessionist group in the Tarai and improvements in Nepal’s international image after years of isolation. But on the whole, the public has not felt the tangible benefits of a government under the new Constitution.

K P Oli had a second kidney transplant in May, and the past ten months have been overtaken by the Covid-19 crisis, but there is little doubt that it is his style of leadership that has undermined the government’s performance.

Oli turned the Prime Minister’s Office into a parallel power centre to Singha Darbar. Decision-making was so centralised in Oli, and there was so much micro-management, that ministers did not feel empowered. For his part, the prime minister seemed to revel in being the fulcrum of the state mechanism.

Oli also failed in cultivating friendships, acted imperious and allowed animosities to fester. Most inexplicable has been his deliberate sidelining of Madhav Kumar Nepal, which has made the latter go in to a most unnatural embrace of Pushpa Kamal Dahal and his Maoist legacy.

The train of events that made the prime minister violate the Constitution has to do with his inability to ‘manage’ Dahal. Oli’s plan three years ago was to manage a massive victory for his UML-Maoist electoral alliance, while at the same time enmeshing Dahal into the new Constitution.

Dahal bided his time because the Constitution did not allow a no-confidence motion for two years after government formation. However, even before that time restriction was over, Dahal made common cause with the top-line ex-UML leadership, who had not got over Oli’s sweeping victory at the party General Convention six years ago.

Dahal also deftly placed his Maoist comrade Agni Sapkota as Speaker, despite him carrying the conflict-era murder case of Arjun Bahadur Lama that is being investigated by the police under a Supreme Court order.

When it became possible to oust the sitting prime minister, Dahal became increasingly aggressive, supported by former prime ministers, Nepal and Jhalnath Khanal, both of whom were blistering in their criticism of the prime minister. Dahal sat back and let the two do the talking.

Ever since the Millennium Challenge Compact was not presented before Parliament by the Speaker, despite his duty to do so, Oli came to believe that Dahal wanted him to fail. Just as President Bidya Devi Bhandari is being described as doing Oli’s bidding, Sapkota was following Dahal’s orders in the Speaker’s chair.

For the past year, Dahal has made common cause with disgruntled heavyweights in the CPN Secretariat, trying to create conditions for Oli’s ouster. Whereas the proper way to do so would have been through a vote in the Parliamentary Party of the CPN, there was an attempt to project him as weakened and lacking in legitimacy through constant prodding by the Secretariat.

In essence, this boiled down to a Maoist/Leninist control of the Government by the Party, against which the Prime Minister became increasingly angry and rigid.

This opportunity arrived when the Constitutional Council met last week to take decision on dozens of appointments that were pending for the CIAA to the NHRC and the various other commissions. When the Speaker stayed away, acting on Dahal’s order, the prime minister’s patience ran out.

Oli clearly feels that Dahal will endanger the polity, and does not want him to take over the government under the new Constitution without showing contrition for the conflict. He also sees himself as the rightfully elected party Chair, and believes Nepal should be willing to wait for the upcoming General Convention to succeed him.

This is where the matters came to a head. On the one hand, lack of effective governance meant that Oli did not have a buffer of public support, and he has been further burdened by an implacably hostile press. On the other hand, Nepal and Dahal wanted to be party Chair and prime minister right away.

As the divisions within the NCP got more and more intractable, everyone who supported political stability had hoped that it was prospect of a party split that would make the three main actors – Oli, Dahal and Nepal – backtrack at the last moment. This did not happen.

It is incongruous that it was not the opposition in Parliament but the NCP’s own members who prepared to bring a no-confidence motion against their own party’s prime minister. Getting wind of this on Sunday morning, the prime minister recommended dissolution of the Lower House, and President Bhandari (who tends to see things in the same light as the Prime Minister) promptly provided the stamp of approval.

Prime Minister Oli overstepped the Constitution in calling for a disbandment of the House. The statute states that dissolution is only allowed if the House is not able to elect a prime minister.

Oli’s position defence is that as a prime minister with two-thirds majority, not being able to form a government ipso facto proves the point that none of the other options available through the Constitution can work, hence the dissolution.

The prime minister went one step further to appoint members to constitutional bodies, in particular to the corruption watchdog (CIAA) which Dahal would regard as being specifically targeted at himself because of allegations of his misuse of cantonment funds during the peace process.

Today, the political relationship between those who worked together to bring the new Constitution is in tatters. Important matters of state and the people’s welfare during a pandemic are in limbo. Transitional justice is stuck.

A prime minister who espouses multiparty democracy is on the back foot, while a former Maoist chieftain who proposes party control of government and an executive presidency, is coming strong.

The street protests that have flared should not go out of hand, and the Judiciary as the institution of last recourse should not be sullied by the current fist-fight in the ruling party as it deliberates on the dissolution.

Significantly, the Chief Justice has been a member of the Constitutional Council meeting that made the 45 appointments under the prime minister’s controversial ordinance.

Prime Minister Oli has failed in being a sagacious leader, and he has not been able to rein in Dahal’s nervous ambition. But he has recommended elections in April-May next year, which could not be the action of an autocrat-in-making as his critics would have it.

What has been done to the Constitution has been done, and there seems to be no clean way out of the quagmire other than through the elections that has been called.

In fact, if one were to try and peer through Kathmandu’s murky smog, the new election would be an opportunity for the Nepali Congress, the RSP, the ‘alternative’ Sajha-Bibeksheel party, to move with strength into Parliament, and capitalise on the NCP’s disarray.

When the dust settles over the next few days, one hopes it will be possible to plan for a free, fair and peaceful elections in 2021.

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