Nepal ruling party feud affecting COVID-19 response

Illustration: BHANU BHATTARAI

As if Nepal did not already have enough on its plate with the economic collapse caused by the global pandemic and a season of floods, its government has been consumed by a never-ending power struggle within the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP).

The whole country is being held hostage by the battle for supremacy between Prime Minister K P Oli and the party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal. This has undermined the capacity of the government machinery to deal with the national crisis caused by COVID-19, and now the response to flood and landslide disasters all over the country.

Although the daily COVID-19 caseload nationwide is decreasing, there has been a surge in Kathmandu Valley after the easing of the lockdown, and there are now 290 cases and two fatalities. There were only 39 cases before restrictions were relaxed.

Nepal PM Oli under pressure to resign

Bow out, Editorial

At a time of such crisis, the ministers in the Coronavirus Control and Management Committee are so busy politicking, they have not even met once since 29 June. “The party is in deep crisis at this very time, and since many of the members of the Committee are Standing Committee members, we were not able to meet,” Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali told Nepali Times. “We started out well in managing the disease, but the Committee is distracted at the moment.”

Hopefully, now that the Standing Committee meeting has been put off for a week to let things cool down between Prime Minister Oli and Chairman Dahal, the Coronavirus Committee will meet to decide what to do about the lockdown that is due to end 22 July. Separately, the Cabinet decided on Thursday to allow public transport to operate at 50% capacity with safeguards from this week.

A Pro-Prime Minister Oli rally in Kathmandu where participants were not taking precautions against COVID-19.

Critics have also pointed to street demonstrations in cities across the country by supporters of Prime Minister Oli, where participants were seen not to be taking enough precautions against the virus. It is learnt that Oli himself gave the instructions to youth groups to stage the demos. Anti-Oli groups staged their own demonstrations, also not taking appropriate protection measures.

In stark contrast, the hunger strike by the Enough Is Enough group demanded better handling of the pandemic, and protesters worse masks and kept safe separation.

Nepal ruling party on verge of split 

Open and shut case, Editorial 

Foreign Minister Gyawali, however, defends the prime minister: “In conflict zones around the world, there have been ceasefires because of the pandemic. But in Nepal the disgruntled elements in the party are using the crisis to remove the prime minister.”

The anti-Oli rival faction in the party has a majority in the 9-member secretariat and 44 member Standing Committee. After coming under relentless attack, in the past two months Oli used the distraction of the Limpiyadhura ‘war of the maps’ with India to buy time and defuse the internal threat.

Then on 28 June he used a party function to publicly accuse the Dahal faction of being instigated by the Indian Embassy to remove him. Since then, the war of the words got worse until the showdown on 2 July when Oli got President Bhandari to end the budget session of Parliament and also registered his former UML party in the Election Commission.

Anti-Oli faction members at the NCP office in Dhumbarahi this week.

Oli’s is gambling that he can use the House not being in session to pass an executive order making it easier to split a political party, thus keeping the option of restarting the UML open in case the rival faction unseated him from the party and government.

Parliament being prorogued has meant that important legislations like the Citizenship Bill, the MCC ratification and 54 other bills are now in limbo. Prime Minister Oli’s move appears to be in response to the threat that he may be unseated by a vote of no confidence.

“The Prime Minister’s moves to save himself have weakened Nepal’s democracy and its institutions,” says constitution expert Bipin Adhikari. “Parliament is where the peoples’ problems are discussed and find common solutions. But proroguing Parliament because of a dispute within the party will ham democracy itself.”

The NCP Standing Committee meeting on 30 June. The committee is now adjourned for another week because of the feud in the party.

The impact of this intra-party feud is being felt right down the line in provincial and municipal governments. Chief Minister Prithvi Subba gurung of Gandaki Province and Chief Minister Shankar Pokhrel of Province 5 have both been camped out in Kathmandu to support Oli even though their Provincial Assemblies are in session.

The impact of the power struggle is felt in all three levels of government and  especially on local governments in the quarantine facilities for returnees from India. Party infighting also means ministers are no longer regular in meetings, and attending faction meetings instead.

Says Nepali Congress lawmaker Narayan Khadka: “Morale is very low, and the NCP has mortally wounded its own prime minister. Even if the party does not split, there is too much bad blood between the two factions to work well together to tackle the country’s many crises.”

Meanwhile a group of 11 civil society members issued an ‘Appeal for Constitutional Stability’ on Friday, calling on the ruling NCP to resolve its differences. The group includes anthropologist Dambar Chemjong, former secretary Rameshore Khanal, human rights worker Renu Adhikari and former ambassador Shanker Sharma. 

The statement said: ‘We remind all political parties and the respective leaders of existing constitutional provisions and to pursue their agenda only through the parliamentary route, with full transparency. We note the resurgence of foreign interference in national affairs, which had diminished in recent times, but seems now to be spreading beyond earlier bounds. We must remain alert in the fight to protect national sovereignty and the inalienable rights of the citizens of Nepal.’ 

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