Kathmandu: In an unprecedented move, Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli recommended on Sunday the dissolution of the House of Representatives and that mid-term elections should be held on April 30 and May 10, 2021. Oli came to power in 2018 with two-thirds support in parliament, becoming the first prime minister in the last three the decade to receive such a historic mandate.
Despite objections from some cabinet colleagues, PM Oli took the decision unilaterally and convinced President Bidya Bhandari to endorse his recommendation. To the surprise of many, Bhandari immediately endorsed the PM’s move without taking time to examine the constitutionality of the move.
There was neither a no-confidence motion against Oli in parliament nor had the Nepali Communist Party officials asked him to quit. The prime minister took the step with the assumption that sooner or later, his own party would remove him from power.
PM Oli’s move is a serious blow to Nepal’s newfound political stability, which was achieved after the national election in 2017 as per the new constitution adopted in 2015. It is too early to say definitively what course the country will take in future, but the move is likely to trigger another round of political instability. Here is The Wire’s comprehensive primer to understand what led Oli to take this unpopular move and what its repercussions could be.
How did it all start?
In the 2017 national elections, Oli’s party CPN-UML and Pushpa ‘Prachanda’ Kamal Dahal’s party CPN (Maoist Centre) forged an electoral alliance. Combing direct and proportional seats, Oli’s party emerged as the largest party with 121 in the 275-member parliament but did not have an absolute majority to form the government. Prachanda’s party was at the third-largest in the newly-elected parliament.
Both the leaders decided to merge their parties to form the Nepal Communist Party. Along with the unification, Oli and Prachanda reached an agreement on power-sharing. The four-point agreement – which was kept secret in the initial months but was later made public – states that Oli and Prachanda will lead the government for an equal period of time. The unification of the party was largely driven by the ambitions of the two leaders, despite their differences – ideological and otherwise.
Oli’s ambition was to become a powerful prime minister, while Prachanda’s desire was to lead a big communist party and government. According to the agreement between the two leaders, Oli had to hand over leadership of the government to Prachanda after two-and-a-half years. But Oli refused to do so; instead he agreed to grant the party’s executive powers to Prachanda.
As per the new agreement, Prachanda was made executive chairman of the party. But this arrangement did not last for long because Oli continued to hold his grip on the party as well. Since then, there have been several agreements between two leaders on how to share power, but none of them has clicked.
In the initial years of the government, PM Oli and Prachanda were politically on the same page, with a strong alliance with senior party leaders such as Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal and Bam Dev Gautam. Prachanda’s plan was to become the elected party president at its general convention with support from Oli, the party’s strongest leader.
Later, Prachanda realised that Oli would not hand over power to him as promised, which led him to form a faction with top leaders like Nepal, Gautam and Khanal. During this period, Oli tried to woo Prachanda by offering him a lucrative position but the latter refused to get tempted. Therefore, the root of the current problem is the power-sharing dispute between Oli and Prachanda.
Why did the recent round of ruling party conflict trigger this move?
Over the past few weeks, the intensity of the intra-party conflict of the ruling NCP was much higher than in the past. There were no visible chinks in the united front forged by party’s senior leaders Prachanda, Nepal, Gautam and Khanal against Oli. They were protesting PM Oli’s monopoly in the party and government. With party leaders in an unrelenting mood, Oli was relegated to the minority in his party’s committees such as the secretariat meeting, the standing committee and the party’s parliamentary party. The phalanx of senior leaders had a bottom-line: Oli will have to resign either from the prime minister or party chairman.
But, they were very careful of taking any steps because Oli had time and again cautioned that if he felt threatened, he would take ‘big action.’ Senior leaders had expected that he could split the party or dissolve parliament. Therefore, the party decided not to take any action until parliament commences. As per the constitutional provisions, the winter session of parliament should have begun within the next two weeks.
Why did Oli dissolve parliament?
Though the dissolution of parliament by the Nepali prime minister may appear as a surprise move, he was preparing to take the step for a long time. The decision to take the step before parliament convenes was deliberate, to prevent detractors in his own party from tabling a no-confidence motion.
On Saturday, he held a final negotiation with Prachanda about resolving the crisis. In the meeting, Oli sensed that party leaders will remove him from one post. As he was in minority in all-party committees, Oli chose to dissolve parliament and go for elections.
Oli believes that this move will keep him in power until the elections at least, because there is no parliament to decide his fate.
Prime Minister Oli had been laying the ground to be prepared for any eventualities for some time. In April this year, he introduced an ordinance to relax the provision required to split political parties by amending the Political Parties Act.
The new provisions allowed a new party to be registered with the Election Commission with 40% support, either within the parliamentary party or in the party’s central committee. Earlier, the provision was that there had to be 40% support both in the parliamentary party as well as the central committee to recognise the split. Facing trenchant protests from party leaders and opposition, Oli withdrew the ordinance.
After the dissolution of parliament, it is likely that Oli will bring this ordinance again with the purpose of forming a new party.
Last week, he tried to make appointments to key constitutional bodies. However, speaker Agni Sapkota – who is close to Dahal – did not support him, saying there had not been proper consultations within the party. Similarly, Nepali Congress president Sher Bahadur Deuba also did not support him.
That’s why, Oli introduced a new ordinance that would allow the Constitutional Council to make recommendations for appointments even in the absence of a speaker and opposition party leader. His intent was to appoint his supporters to key constitutional bodies such as the Election Commission, Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority and others. Despite objections from within the NCP and the opposition Nepali Congress, the Constitutional Council has recommended its candidates.
What has been the political and civic response to parliament’s dissolution?
Top leaders of the NCP who have command in the party’s key structures are putting in place the key steps required to take disciplinary action against Oli.
The party’s standing committee met on Sunday and called for the Central Committee to meet on Tuesday to take action against Oli, a demand which is likely to be met. The prime minister’s faction has also called for a meeting of the Central Committee. With both sides likely to take disciplinary action against the other, the NCP will be on its way to a formal split.
Oli’s decision has also invited criticism from opposition parties such as the Nepali Congress and others in parliament. People from civil society, media, academicians and various sectors have objected to the dissolution of parliament. Street protests have already erupted across the country.
What will be the Supreme Court’s role?
Over a dozen writs have already been filed in the Supreme Court challenging the dissolution of parliament. The first hearing will be on Wednesday.
According to Article 76 of the constitution, if the prime minister “fails to obtain a vote of confidence or the Prime Minister cannot be appointed, the President shall, on recommendation of the Prime Minister, dissolve the House of Representatives and appoint a date of election so that the election to another House of Representatives is completed within six months”.
Advocates and lawyers are of the view that the constitution of Nepal does not allow Oli to dissolve parliament as there are still chances to form a new government. However, Oli, President Bhandari, and their supporters are of the view that in the parliamentary system, the PM can take the decision to call for elections if he faces a crisis.
In the past, the constitution had allowed the PM to go for mid-term elections. But due to frequent mid-term elections after 1990, during the process to draw up a new constitution in 2015, the political parties had agreed to make some changes concerning the prime minister’s right to go for a mid-term election.
According to the new constitutional provision, elections can only be called if parliament fails to form a government that is either coalition, led by the largest party, or a minority government with a mandate to take a vote of confidence within a certain stipulated time frame.
So all eyes are now on the court. It would not be an understatement to say Nepal’s political direction depends entirely on the court’s verdict.
If the court endorses Oli’s move, he is likely to lead the government till elections are held. If the court rejects his move and reinstates parliament, Oli will be removed from power and there are high chances of a coalition government being formed.
Nepal’s encounters with dissolution of parliament
Nepal does not have a long history of parliamentary democracy. In Nepal’s first parliamentary election in 1959, the Nepali Congress emerged as the largest party with two-third of the votes. But the government led by veteran leader B.P. Koirala was removed by King Mahendra, imposing a party-less panchayat system.
After 30 years of the panchayat regime, democracy was restored in 1990. An election was held the next year, in which the Nepali Congress emerged as the largest party. But due to an intra-party rift, then prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala dissolved parliament in 1994. The Supreme Court endorsed his decision on the ground that as a PM who enjoys a majority in parliament, he can go for a fresh mandate.
Again in 1995, then prime minister Manmohan Adhikari who faced a no-confidence motion dissolved parliament. But this time, the SC rejected his move with a view that there was still the possibility of forming an alternate government.
In 2002, Sher Bahadur Deuba dissolved parliament and announced dates for elections to be held. But the election did not take place due to the Maoist insurgency.
Since 1990, no prime minister or parliament has completed its five-year tenure. The 2017 elections presented the best opportunity for the tenure to be completed, given the strong mandate the NCP had.
In Nepal’s history, all parliaments have been dissolved due to internal disputes in the ruling party. All prime ministers have failed to maintain good relations with their own party in governing the country.
Can Oli win?
In the 2017 election, Oli was a popular leader due to his nationalist stance. Oli’s slogan of political stability and prosperity attracted a lot of voters.
While he emerged as the most powerful prime minister in the country’s modern political history, Oli failed to deliver on his promises to control corruption. Similarly, his handling of the COVID-19 crisis led to major demonstrations across Nepal.
With the economy in tatters, the government did not announce any stimulus package to revive the economy, which was hit hard by the coronavirus. Similarly, poor people suffered the worst due to the crisis but there was no relief package for them.
Additionally, the Oli-led government removed the provision of free testing and free treatment for COVID-19, which created frustration among people.
The spectre of ruling party leaders engaged in intra-party disputes while the country was suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly gnawed away heavily at Oli’s popularity.
The ruling party has also formed governments in six out of the seven provinces. So, the developments at the Centre could have ramifications for the stability of these provincial governments too.
There is a high possibility that Oli will form a separate party and campaign for the elections, but the chances of bettering his last electoral performance are very low, given his track record over the past three years.
What will be the reaction from the international community?
After dissolving parliament, PM Oli’s priority will be to garner international support. Mainly, he will try to secure the backing of the two important neighbouring countries – India and China – and western countries like the US. His spin will likely be to convince them that democracy will be protected by holding the elections. The big concerns of India, the US and other western countries will be to ensure the protection of democracy, the constitution and political stability in the country.
China was seen to be instrumental in having a unified communist party in Nepal at any cost. Through personal meetings, Chinese ambassador Hou Yanqi had conveyed a message that Beijing wanted to see unity in the NCP.
Oli was previously been seen as being friendly to Beijing and had a testy relationship with New Delhi over the past year. However, in recent months, the Nepali government had reached out to New Delhi. There was a significant thaw in relations, with the Indian foreign secretary visiting Kathmandu in November. Plans were also being drawn up for the Nepali foreign minister to visit New Delhi for a Joint Commission meeting, which is likely to come to a halt.
Kamal Dev Bhattarai is a Kathmandu-based journalist and political commentator.