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Oli’s Power Grab Endangers Nepal’s Fragile Democratic Transition
Oli’s Power Grab Endangers Nepal’s Fragile Democratic Transition
Op-Ed / Asia

Oli’s Power Grab Endangers Nepal’s Fragile Democratic Transition

Originally published in World Politics Review

The insistence of Nepal's Prime Minister K.P. Sharm Oli on maintaining power marks a potentially dangerous juncture along his drift toward authoritarianism.

The aftershocks of Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s decision last month to dissolve the lower house of Nepal’s Parliament and call for early elections are still being felt throughout the country. Oli’s controversial move, designed to thwart growing demands for him to leave office, has been widely criticized—including within his own Nepal Communist Party, or NCP—for contravening Nepal’s 2015 constitution. His insistence on maintaining power marks a potentially dangerous juncture along Oli’s drift toward authoritarianism, and could reverse democratic gains Nepal has made since its 10-year civil war ended in 2006.

The latest episode in Nepal’s roiling politics was entirely predictable. Oli took power in 2018, after campaigning in the previous year’s elections on a staunchly nationalist platform. The NCP and its fellow leftists in the Maoist party were able to capitalize on a wave of anti-Indian sentiment owing to a blockade that New Delhi imposed in 2015, and they together secured a nearly two-thirds majority in Parliament. Oli then sealed a “gentleman’s agreement” with Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the leader of the Maoists, to merge their parties and to take turns holding the top job during the government’s five-year term.

Many in Kathmandu thought the strong mandate of the newly formed NCP would ensure the kind of stability rarely afforded to Nepal’s governments; the country has had no fewer than 26 prime ministers in the past 30 years. But the NCP, born from a marriage of convenience, proved to be fraught with divisions from the start. Oli’s centralization of power and steadily escalating rivalry with Dahal ultimately rendered the NCP government largely ineffective. Factions within the party competed for influence, with calls for Oli’s resignation growing louder throughout 2020. A formal split was only narrowly averted thanks in part to diplomatic efforts by China, which has apparently calculated that a unified NCP-led government in Kathmandu is a more reliable ally.

Public confidence in Oli’s leadership, meanwhile, has gradually eroded throughout his tenure. The discontent stems from a series of corruption scandals, the government’s haphazard response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a persistent campaign to shrink Nepal’s political space. Prior to his drastic move to dissolve the House of Representatives on Dec. 20, Oli’s government had stirred controversy by proposing several laws aimed at limiting freedom of expressioncurbing press freedom, increasing surveillance of online activity and weakening the national human rights watchdog. These initiatives, combined with several measures to centralize decision-making within the prime minister’s office, were widely criticized.

Perhaps most damagingly, Oli has displayed persistent disregard for Nepal’s constitution, the product of a lengthy drafting process that spanned seven years and two separate constituent assemblies. The charter represents a flawed but notable compromise that cemented Nepal’s decades-long transition from a centralized Hindu monarchy to a secular, federal republic. Yet Oli’s track record on implementing the constitution has ranged from neglect to open hostility. In particular, his government has carried out a concerted effort to undercut federalism, one of the constitution’s core tenets, by chipping away at provincial governments’ authorities and consolidating power in Kathmandu.

Oli’s insistence on maintaining power could reverse democratic gains Nepal has made since its 10-year civil war ended in 2006.

His dubious decision to dissolve the House of Representatives, in order to preempt a no-confidence motion against him, was yet another display of contempt for the rule of law. Oli may now calculate that, despite his weakened position, persistent divisions within the opposition and among the NCP’s supporters offer him a viable path to stay in office. However, Nepali constitutional experts and retired judges generally agree that Oli’s actions violated the constitution’s provisions regarding the dissolution of Parliament.

Oli’s opponents have lodged a number of legal petitions challenging the move, and a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court, mandated with adjudicating disputes linked to the charter, is currently hearing arguments in the case. Oli is urging the judges to rule in his favor, arguing that the dissolution of the House of Representatives was an “entirely political” move, and thus not subject to judicial review. The inclusion on the constitutional bench of a judge Oli had appointed as attorney general in 2015 initially cast a shadow over the proceedings, although the judge in question eventually recused himself. Still, the case is being seen as a litmus test of judicial independence in Nepal.

If Oli’s gambit ultimately proves successful, it would deal a blow to the Supreme Court’s credibility at a time when public trust has already collapsed in the prime minister and in President Bidya Bhandari, who approved Oli’s decision without consulting any other political parties. A possible scenario involving a discredited executive, a compromised judiciary and an absent legislature would risk destabilizing Nepal’s still-fledgling democratic transition. Oli’s opponents would likely organize mass protests in response, especially if legal and logistical hurdles delay the next elections, which are scheduled for April and May. Meanwhile, critics of Nepal’s transition, particularly those opposed to secularism and federalism, could exploit the crisis and seek to roll back important democratic reforms that have already been implemented. Such a standoff would make for a combustible mix, particularly given the risk of heavy-handed responses by the security forces to suppress demonstrations.

Oli’s gambit also presents a dilemma for other stakeholders seeking to safeguard their political futures. The role of the Nepali Congress, or NC, the second-largest party in Parliament, could be important. Over the past three years, it has failed to mount a credible opposition to the NCP due to its own internal divisions stemming from a poor showing in the 2017 elections. Some NC leaders now view the latest developments as an opening to try and win back seats in the upcoming elections or strike their own power-sharing deal with Oli. But supporting Oli’s decision to call early polls would be shortsighted, as it would potentially legitimize the prime minister’s unconstitutional maneuvers and imperil the 2015 constitution, which was promulgated during an NC-led government. The NC and other opposition parties should thus set aside narrow political expediency, resist Oli’s decision and call for the current Parliament to be reinstated.

Nepal’s powerful neighbors, meanwhile, are unlikely to intervene further. Oli has had a frosty relationship with India, underscored last year by an acerbic dispute over a contested border area in northwestern Nepal, but it has thawed over the past few months. New Delhi now characterizes Oli’s decision to dissolve Parliament as an internal matter. Relations with China, meanwhile, have remained generally positive, despite unease in Kathmandu about Beijing’s increasing influence in the country’s politics and its “micro-managing” of tensions within the NCP in efforts to avert a split.

Other international actors, including the United Nations, the European Union and the United States, which itself is seeking to counterbalance China’s growing presence in Nepal, would be wise to engage more actively. Reactions from multilateral bodies like the U.N. and EU have been predictably muted so far, likely because they have been chastened by the Nepali government’s past accusations—mostly exaggerated—of interference in Nepal’s domestic politics. But the current standoff is dangerous enough that officials in New York, Brussels and Washington should cast aside their inhibitions. The current trajectory could undo the progress Nepal has achieved, with the support of the international community, since the end of its civil war.