Nepal PM Oli goes it alone

Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana, Prime Minister Oli and Upper House Chair Ganesh Timilsina at a meeting of the Constitutional Council on Tuesday, after the ordinance that allows a smaller quorum. Photo: PMO

Nepal’s Prime Minister K P Oli, who is facing a growing mutiny within his party,  has become even more politically isolated by an ordinance he pushed on constitutional appointments.

In a day of fast-moving events, after a Constitutional Council meeting which the prime minister chairs did not have a quorum to decide on new appointments, Oli got the cabinet to endorse his recommendation and rushed to Shital Niwas for President Bidya Devi Bhandari to quickly sign an ordinance amending the law to allow only three members of the Council to make appointments.

The move has drawn sharp rebuke from across the political spectrum, including from within Oli’s own Nepal Communist Party, where he is locked in a power struggle with a faction led by party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal. The move has been described as an attempt to dismantle an essential check-and-balance provision in Nepal’s democracy.

The 2010 Constitutional Council Act stipulated that at least five of its six members made up of the Speaker, Deputy-Speaker, Upper House Chair, the Chief Justice, the leader of the opposition and the prime minister are needed to decide on appointments. The ordinance now accepts the prime minister and only two other members to be present for a full quorum.

It was after Speaker Agni Sapkota and Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba failed to appear in meetings of the Council on Sunday and Tuesday, that Oli got a presidential ordinance that allows it decide on the basis of a majority of only three members including the prime minister as chair.

The reason this is significant is because the Constitutional Council that appoints the heads of independent institutions such as the Attorney General, Commission on the Investigation of the Abuse of Authority (CIAA), Election Commission, the National Human Rights Commission, and ten other bodies. The Constitution had tried to ensure that these appoints be made with the heads of the three branches of the state as well as the opposition party, and Tuesday’s ordinance disturbs this balance.

Constitutional experts say that although the ordinance only changes provisions of a law, it is tantamount to amending the Constitution itself since the prime minister has vested in himself authority that was distributed among the legislative, judicial and executive arms of the state. 

The existing 14 constitutional bodies need to be fully independent in order to monitor the conduct of government, and adds a layer of check-and-balance on elected officials to ensure accountability. The ordinance has removed this independence.

In April, Prime Minister Oli had tried to pass a similar ordinance together with another constitutional amendment allowing parties to split. But he had to retract it after widespread criticism from the opposition NC and from within his own party. This time, Oli seems determined to go it alone, and on Tuesday itself summoned Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana and Upper House Chair Ganesh Timilsina for a meeting of the Council 

However, the meeting did not immediately take a decision on any new appointments. The Council makes appointments to 62 members of the 14 constitutional bodies.

Prime Minister Oli’s move may have been a show of defiance against his party rivals led by Dahal, but could trigger a constitution crisis. Before the President formally sings off on it, the Constitutional Council’s decision on appointments needs to be ratified by two-thirds of a parliamentary committee. But here the Oli faction is in a distinct minority.

Oli could try to get the NC’s Deuba to attend the meeting and decide on appointment, but that will only be the first hurdle he has to cross in order to get his own way.

These development comes amidst mounting pressure on Prime Minister Oli both from within his own party which is on the verge of a split, but also from nationwide rallies held by the NC this week as well as the rise of the Hindu-right which wants Nepal’s secular republican constitution scrapped.

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