Unconventional party conventions
Nepal’s governance is once more grinding to halt as the two major parties, the Nepali Congress (NC) that leads the ruling coalition, and the opposition UML gear up for their general conventions.
Such is the relentless focus on heated contest for influential posts within these parties that even the mutiny within the Supreme Court against the Chief Justice has dropped off the headlines.
The conventions, during which Deuba and Oli will once again vie for top leadership positions within their respective parties, will take place even as the three branches of government are all tangled up. The UML conclave is being held in Chitwan this weekend, and the NC is holding its in mid-December in Kathmandu.
The row over Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana has not only spot-lit the transactional relationship between the judiciary and executive, but also how the state is being held hostage by the internal power struggles within the main political parties.
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Nepal’s current political turmoil came to a boil in December 2020 when Prime Minister KP Oli dissolved the House in response to a months-long internal power struggle between him and his Nepal Communist Party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal. The PM’s move was unsuccessful, as the Supreme Court restored the House in February 2021.
This ultimately led to the Supreme Court deciding that the NCP unification was null and void, thus driving Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoists and UML dissenter Madhav Kumar Nepal to ally with the opposition led by the NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba.
Oli dissolved parliament for a second time in May and the Supreme Court once more deemed it unconstitutional, even ordering that Deuba replace Oli as prime minister.
Deuba began his fifth term as prime minister in July, leading a five-party coalition government by proroguing parliament and passing an ordinance to amend the Political Parties Act that made it easier for political parties to split.
This was directly intended to allow his ally Madhav Nepal to break away from the UML and form his own party, so making it possible for him to team up with the coalition government and seek cabinet positions. Many saw the prime minister's move (something he and his own coalition partners had accused Oli of committing) as an undermining of the parliamentary process.
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But Deuba outdid Oli: after the ordinance had served its purpose and begun to become a burden during his much-delayed cabinet expansion, he got President Bidya Devi Bhandari to repeal it. Deuba was bitterly criticised for running roughshod over the Constitution, but he was happy to form a full government.
In the days leading up to the Cabinet expansion, news emerged that Chief Justice Rana wanted his nominees to also be given ministerships. The public, media and the legal fraternity was outraged by this blatant violation of the separation of powers. Among Deuba’s cabinet picks was Gajendra Bahadur Hamal for Minister of Industry, Commerce and Supplies, who just happened to be the brother-in-law of Chief Justice Rana and an NC member.
Both Justice Rana, as well as Deuba’s camp, vehemently denied having negotiated for Cabinet positions, but the damage had been done. Hamal could not stand the heat and resigned three days later, leading many to conclude that there had indeed been a deal between the chief justice and the prime minister.
As the judiciary erupted in protest, the Supreme Court stopped scheduled hearings. The Supreme Court Bar Association, the Nepal Bar Association, former Supreme Court justices called for boycotts demanding the resignation of Chief Justice Rana.
Rana has refused to step down, saying he would rather face an impeachment motion in the House, knowing fully well that the politicians did not have the stomach for it because of their own pending cases. A compromise of sorts was reached this week under which cases in the Supreme Court will be decided by a tamper-proof lottery-based cause list.
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Now, as the two major parties hold their general conventions as required by law, there are doubts about whether they serve any purpose when power is so centralised at the top leadership of parties even with federal devolution.
“The Nepali Congress and the UML were revolutionary political parties formed after the democratic movement 30 years ago, they were expected to bring about great socio-economic transformation,” says political science professor Krishna Khanal. “But they face a great crisis, they are in a trap of their own making.”
Khanal notes that the greatest challenges for Nepal’s political parties are not constitutional matters or public opinion and discourse, but conflicting ambitions within individual parties that could make them implode, as parties have done in the past.
“There is no internal democracy within Nepal’s political parties,” laments Radheshyam Adhikari himself an NC MP. “The Constitution stipulates that political parties must hold internal elections every five years, which Nepal’s major political parties have failed to do. They have therefore lost their public legitimacy.”
Khanal and Adhikari agree that political parties have just become a collective of selfish people seeking to grab power for their own self-interest. The current political climate also brings into question the leadership of Nepal’s ageing political figures, and the need for a younger generation to step up to the stage.
“Nepal’s political parties are a stagnant swamp, not a constantly flowing river,” Khanal says. “The same leaders from three decades ago are still holding and vying for power instead of passing the baton to a new generation of leaders who came post-2006.”
Meanwhile, Nepalis are now so disillusioned with the current state of politics that they do not just blame the politicians, but to flaws in the Constitution and even the very concept of a secular multi-party federal state.
However, former law minister and ambassador to India Nilamber Acharya says the current state is not due to the Constitution, but the flagrant violation of its principles.
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“The current political disarray is not due to republicanism or federalism, but due to the inability of elected leaders to bring those concepts into practice,” Acharya says. “The responsibility of preserving the democratic process and strengthening the republic lies primarily with the Nepali Congress and the UML.”
He adds, “The flaw lies not in democracy, but in the fact that we do not have a functioning democratic process. The multi-party system is not responsible, the deep factionalism within the parties, and the inability of leaders to work together for the national interest.”
Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.