Nepal sets elections in middle of pandemic

After prolonged political theatrics, Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari on Friday at midnight dissolved Parliament and announced early elections even while the country reeled under a ferocious Covid-19 resurgence.

She made the decision at the recommendation of Prime Minister K P Oli after there were two conflicting claims to form the next government from Oli himself, and from a coalition led by four-time prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress (NC).

Despite the late hour, the decision was widely condemned in Nepal’s public sphere with many commentators accusing Oli of showing authoritarian tendencies and ‘cheating’. The decision has also dragged President Bhandari into controversy for not defending her constitutional role, and for being a ‘rubber stamp’ for the government.

In a brief statement, spokesperson of the presidential secretariat Keshab Ghimire said the decision had been taken as per Article 76 (7) of the Constitution and early elections would be held in two phases on 12 and 19 November, 2021.  

Justifying her move, the president’s office said neither Deuba nor Oli had been able to legally prove that they had the confidence of a majority of the House. President Bhandari had given a deadline of 5pm Friday for parties in Parliament to show that they had the confidence of most MPs.

Deuba of the NC mustered the support of 149 MPs from his own party, the Maoist Centre as well as the anti-Oli members within the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) and the prime minister’s own UML. The number was supposed to be enough to make Deuba Nepal’s prime minister for the fifth time.

However, Oli reached Shital Nibas ahead of Deuba and his loyalists on Friday afternoon with a claim to have the support of 153 members of his UML party and the JSP, even though the dissident factions without both parties had sided with Deuba. 

The NC-MC-JSP coalition was cobbled together with the NC’s 61 members, 48 from the MC, 27 from the the Madhav Kumar Nepal faction of Oli’s UML and 13 from the Upendra Yadav faction of the JSP.

Both sides would have needed only 136 votes in the current 266 membership of the House to form a government. However, when added up, the claims of support from Oli and Deuba totalled more than the membership of the House. The president appears to have used this loophole to announce elections, even though it was clear that Oli did not have the support of sizeable sections of his own party and the JSP.

Both claims of majority interpreted differently the clauses in the Constitution about whether party strength or member numbers should be used as a basis for counting support of Parliament.

However, all this was of least concern to most Nepalis who have been trying to survive a virulent Covid-19 second wave, as hospitals run out of oxygen and ICU beds. There were 177 more deaths on Friday, taking the total to over 6,000. The number of fatalities have doubled in the past three weeks. 

Nepal’s rudimentary health system, even in the cities, is stretched to the limit. But the virus is now spreading in rural communities where there are few hospitals. 

Most of the outrage about the prime minister’s move has centred on why Nepal’s tried and tested politicians were engaged in an endless power struggle while the country was reeling under a ferocious resurgence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Most of the country has been under lockdown for the past month, and there is a likelihood that it will be extended beyond 31 May. 

Critics also pointed out that a Prime Minister who had earlier lost a confidence vote in the House, and who himself had admitted that he had lost his majority, had used extra-constitutional means to force the president to dissolve Parliament and call elections.

‘Understand this, Madam President and Comrade Prime Minister, this gang rape of the Constitution will be costly for you during the elections,’ Congress Spokesperson Biswa Prakash Sharma said in a controversial Tweet posted at 1AM.

`अहंकारको वृक्षमा विनाशको फल लाग्छ´,
सिंगो महाभारतको संक्षिप्त सार यत्ति हो !

बुझि राख्नु रास्ट्रपति महोदया र कमरेड प्रधानमन्त्रीजि, महाब्याधिका बेला मध्यावधिको रंगीन सपना महंगो पर्नेछ ! संविधानको सामुहिक बलात्कारको दुश्परिणाम महंगो पर्नेछ l

— Bishwa Prakash शर्मा (@bishwaprakash77) May 21, 2021

With an ex-prime minister who has already held the post four times, and a three-time prime minister who had lost the confidence of the House on 10 May, both claiming to have a majority, President Bhandari took more than six hours to come up with her decision. Many were not surprised, since she is seen to be loyal to Oli, who appointed her.

Last week, Oli had been given a month to prove he had the support of the House after he lost a confidence vote when the Nepal faction abstained. But on Thursday, he informed the President that he was not able to muster a majority, and she gave members of the house till 5pm Friday to prove that they had the numbers.

Oli was obviously certain the opposition would not be able to get enough MPs, so he could dissolve the House to declare early elections, like he has always wanted. Till the last moment on Friday, Oli appeared sure that his plan would work, but then the NC, MC, and dissidents in the JSP and UML got the required signatures. 

This appears to have prompted him to suddenly claim that he did have the majority after all, and use his leadership of the UML parliamentary party and of Rajendra Mahato of the JSP to claim the numbers, even though both parties had fractured into rebel factions.

As day broke on Saturday, Nepalis woke up to the prospect of elections nearly two years ahead of schedule, and while the pandemic rages through the countryside. There was a lot of anger on social media, with much of it directed at Prime Minister Oli and President Bhandari for having ‘butchered’ the constitution. 

The NC’s Gagan Thapa and others have called for the impeachment of President Bhandari. At a press briefing on Saturday, Oli called critics of the President “anti-republican”.

सन्की प्रधानमन्त्री र मतियार राष्ट्रपतिले मुलुक अँध्यारो सुरुङमा हालेका छन्।महामारीमा त यस्तो अधर्म गर्न सक्ने देशघाती
जोडी यहिं र यत्तिमै रोकिने वाला छैनन्
नेतागण!नअलमलिउँ,खुट्टा नकमाऔं,सचेत नागरिकको साथ लिएर राष्ट्रपति र प्रमको निर्लज्ज कामको सम्पूर्ण शक्तिका साथ प्रतिरोध गरौं।

— Gagan Thapa (@thapagk) May 22, 2021

राष्ट्रपति महोदय,दुवै दावीमा संविधानको धारा ७६(५)अनुसार 'बिश्वासको मत प्राप्तगर्ने'आधार छैन।
दुवै जाली/किर्ते हुन्।दुवै खारेजगरी संविधान बमोजिम चुनाव घोषणाहोस्।यिनीहरूले संघीय गणतन्त्रलाई गाईजात्रामा परिणत गरे,लोकतन्त्रको नाममा ब्रम्हलुट गरे।अब जनतालाई विकल्प खोज्ने अवसर दिनुपर्छ

— Kamal Thapa (@KTnepal) May 21, 2021

Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali blamed the Nepal faction of the UML for the debacle. “By trying to make the leader of an opposition party the prime minister, they pushed the country to early elections,” he said.

The NC-MC-JSP coalition claimed to have 149 signatures, while Oli counted all 121 members of his UML, including the dissident faction, as well as all 34 members, even staunch Oli critics like Baburam Bhattarai and Upendra Yadav.

Adding to the complication was that on Friday evening, some members of the UML said they had not signed up support for the NC-MC-JSP group, and they were still with Oli. Even as the country prepares for elections, the UML's own fate is now uncertain, with at least 27 members of the Nepal faction defecting.

K P Oli became prime minister for the second time after Nepal’s first federal elections under the new Constitution in 2017. His UML party had an electoral alliance with Maoist Centre, and it got a nearly two-thirds majority. The two parties then united in 2018 to form the Nepal Communist Party, with an understanding that Oli and Dahal would take turns being prime minister during the five-year term.

But the personal ambitions of Dahal and Oli clashed, and the two UML ex-prime ministers Madhav Nepal and Jhalnath Khanal also sided with Dahal. When the pandemic began last year, the political infighting had already started getting intense. Both sides later held large political rallies to show support, despite fears of contagion.

After finding out that the Dahal faction of the NCP was registering a no-confidence vote in Parliament, Oli dissolved the lower house on 20 December and called for elections. The Supreme Court, however, overturned that decision, and later ruled that the NCP be disbanded into the UML and the Maoist Centre. 

Having lost the UML’s majority in the House, Oli used divide-and-rule tactics, and was successful in pulling factions in the Maoist Centre, JSP, and even he NC for a time, to side with him. 

In the end, the NC went along with the coalition, even though the JSP’s Mahanta Thakur stayed loyal throughout, and did not join the anti-Oli group on Friday.

The coalition of the NC, MC and sections of the JSP and UML represents an entire spectrum of Nepali  politics, united by their opposition to Oli. It does not include the Hindu-royal RPP, which will be happy with the dissolution with the house because it has been pressing for early elections.